I’ll give Saw a little more credit this time than I did on my first viewing years ago. The basic premise is the stuff of a decent popcorn thriller, Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell are mostly serviceable in their roles, and the central, grimy bathroom set—the only one purpose-built for the film—is a skin-crawling feat of extremely unsavory production design. But ironically, everything gets pretty crappy whenever we leave that bathroom. The cheap, generic sets look like trash, the attempt at a car chase is downright laughable, and perhaps most importantly, Jigsaw’s theatrics are just eye-rollingly dumb. His robe, his pig mask, his stupid little puppet; none of it is remotely scary, and his sociopathic quasi-profundity possesses little of the gravitas its writers seem to think it does. It all feels kind of like a soap opera version of Se7en, which could be fun, but it’s too humorless to embrace its camp potential.
Interesting to see what the same production crew from the first film could accomplish with quadruple the budget. It still feels small and stagey, like its two main locations aren’t part of any larger world, and it doubles down on the 1990s David Fincher by way of Spirit Halloween aesthetic, but at least it’s more cohesive. Director Darren Lynn Bousman’s music video experience is in evidence, and I often wondered if the editor was paid by the cut. Speaking of music videos, anyone who’s ever seen a New Kids on the Block video might have a hard time believing Donnie Wahlberg as Saw II’s tough-as-nails crooked cop, but it’s fun to watch him try. And Jigsaw’s games are getting more thematic, but they still feel kinda basic? I imagine things will get
progressively increasingly convoluted over the course of the series. Anyway, all in all, this was suitable trash for my sick day on the couch after a covid booster.
More than its predecessors, Saw III really leans into the torture porn classification, while at the same time somehow managing to be the first in the series to commit the cardinal sin of being boring. Does anyone really give a shit about drama between Jigsaw and his protégé? I genuinely thought they might start splicing in Real World-style confessionals. Also, I know the dude is on his deathbed, but I really wish Jigsaw would SPEAK UP. Meanwhile, in the soft-spoken serial killer’s latest torture dungeon, some poor schmuck is given the opportunity to forgive the people adjacent to his kid’s accidental death, as they’re frozen, drowned in pureed pig guts, twisted into pretzels, etc. These are some of the series’ grossest set pieces so far, but there’s a lot of daylight between the flaccid twist ending they precipitate and the breathlessness of its reveal. Along the way, they retcon some stuff from the first movie, and apparently those flashback scenes were shot on the set built for the Saw parody in Scary Movie 4, which seems appropriate.
There’s something to be said for a series whose primary draw is brutal violence, but whose creative energy is largely spent on byzantine plotting. Saw IV packs in the backstory, expands Jigsaw’s network of accomplices, and has enough twists and turns to make it almost impossible to follow, even if, like me, you’ve watched the previous three films in the preceding 24 hours. The first Saw made it clear that abandoning any expectation of plausibility is a prerequisite for these movies. That priming is useful for watching Saw IV, which is the first sequel to arguably use the overwrought soap opera aspect to its advantage, even if it’s the third to culminate in a “the bad guy was right under your nose all along!” twist ending. It’s not a good movie, but its relentless pace and refusal to let any character be inconsequential give it a certain desperate energy.
When Saw co-creator Leigh Whannell handed writing duties for the series over to Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan after Saw III, the duo envisioned a trilogy for the next three films, and Saw IV stormed out of the gate laying the groundwork and expanding the mythology. The expansion continues with Saw V, but first-time director David Hackl slows the pace, alternating focus between this episode’s cannon fodder and the origin story of the latest would-be heir to Jigsaw’s legacy. Watching Jigsaw show the ropes to yet another uninspiring trainee is no more stimulating than it was in the dreadful Saw III, nor is the fact that for the first time, his victims don’t seem to have any connection to the broader story (though I have little doubt they’ll be made retroactively relevant in a future installment).
Halfway through this interminable series, I assumed its best days (which were not great!) were behind it, so imagine my surprise that Saw VI may actually be the high water mark! After editing all the previous installments, Kevin Greutert moved to the director’s chair for this one, and he appears not to have micromanaged the new editor (Andrew Coutts), because the obnoxious, spastic editing style of old has been dramatically toned down, as has the jaundiced color palette. Pound for pound, this is arguably the best-made Saw movie so far: its knotty daytime TV plotting and dizzying array of flashbacks is by now more amusing than annoying, and Jigsaw’s traps and their staging are more considered, all constructed around a unifying statement: fuck the US health insurance industry. Back in 2009, I watched Saw VI on a lark without having seen any of the other films, and I incorrectly assumed they were all similarly heavy-handed polemics. Maybe it would have done them some good? Anyway, I seem to be more entertained by this film now than I was then, which makes me wonder if this week’s steady diet of Saw double features has given me a bit of Stockholm syndrome.
Saw 3D begins with a notable first for the series: a scene shot on location (outside Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto) in broad daylight with hundreds of extras, Jigsaw’s first trap in a public place and built for spectators. After countless hours of watching his victims get disassembled in dim, dilapidated industrial environs (I’ve often wondered about the health of Saw City’s commercial real estate market), this scene is literally a breath of fresh air. But anyone hoping to stay in the sun will be disappointed, as we’re soon plunged back into yet another abandoned factory full of pointy whirligigs. Lionsgate exercised some contractual shenanigans to force Kevin Greutert to direct again, and his lack of enthusiasm for the project is clear: This is without a doubt the most rote and lifeless entry in an already mercenary saga. It ostensibly ties up the series’ remaining narrative loose ends, but there’s little satisfaction to be taken in the nonsense of it all. In a franchise built on lazy flashbacks, these are probably the laziest. I have three more Saw movies to sit through, and I really hope none of them manage to find a lower floor than this one.
In the beginning of Saw V, it’s established that Jigsaw is 52 years old, and maybe the fact that he looks considerably older can be chalked up to his chemotherapy and years of disemboweling people. But at a certain point in Jigsaw, the eighth film in the franchise, we see the character a few years before that, presumably when he was in his late 40s, with no attempt made to disguise the fact that the actor who portrays him, Tobin Bell, is now 75. I know verisimilitude has never been a priority for these movies, but speaking as someone in his late 40s who still gets carded sometimes, it’s hard to get past, especially in light of the misdirection at the heart of this movie’s inevitable twist. Jigsaw is the first Saw whodunit, which might have been a fun way to breathe new life into the series, but it just can’t help being back on its bullshit, and the mystery is as preposterous as can be expected.
A second try at a whodunit, and the most competent script in the series to date, though also the most conventional, which makes it pretty easy to solve (I’m not usually good at murder mysteries, but I cracked this one fast). Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson bring some real personality to the franchise for the first time, though the former doesn’t know quite what to do when he’s not cracking wise. This is Darren Lynn Bousman’s fourth time helming a Saw film, and apart from the requisite pig masks and torture traps, his chintzy direction is really the only thing that makes this otherwise stock police procedural align with the rest of the series. But maybe I’m unduly harsh because this is the first Saw film to mildly offend me. Like the others, this one takes place in an unspecified city, and yet multiple establishing shots clearly show it to be my hometown of Philadelphia. And yo, if youse guys ain’t gonna make one of them trap jawns force-feed someone scrapple or wooderboard em with Kenzinger or whatever, pick a more generic skyline.
Tobin Bell’s lucid stoicism, facile as its moralizing may be, has always been the Saw series’ biggest strength, and after nearly two decades of coolly calculated carnage, Saw X finally puts his Jigsaw front and center with the full antihero treatment. Taking place between the events of Saw and Saw II, this one is uncharacteristically patient and character-driven, and by the time the stage is set for the latest round of mayhem, Jigsaw’s victims seem more deserving than ever. Series vet Kevin Greutert returns with a more mature approach to directing and editing, and in contrast with most of the series, Saw X feels motivated more by storytelling than bloodletting (though it of course doesn’t shy away from the latter). However, some of its attempts to make Jigsaw sympathetic are at odds with what we already know about him (since when is he unwilling to endanger innocents?), one of the central plot twists requires him to make a gobsmackingly illogical maneuver, and the film continues the tradition of misplaced faith in the supposed charisma of one of his acolytes. So yeah, it’s not immune to the boneheaded trappings of being a Saw movie, but it’s nevertheless among the best of them.