Directors: The Spierig Brothers
Starring: Matt Passmore, Callum Keith Rennie, Clé Bennett, Hannah Emily Anderson, Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein, Mandela Van Peebles, Brittany Allen, Josiah Black, Tobin Bell
Running Time: 92 min.
★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
When the Saw franchise signed off after hitting rock bottom with 2010's awful Saw 3D: The Final Chapter, even the most devoted diehards had checked out and were happy to see it go. After enduring a string of lifeless sequels that drained whatever waning interest was left in the property, the general consensus was that a nice, long break sounded like a great idea. It was also generally understood that with this hiatus came the promise it would return at some point as either a sequel, prequel, reboot or something in between. And now with Jigsaw, it's clear they've decided to go with a straight up sequel.
If anything, this creates an opportunity for the series to recharge its batteries and head in a new creative direction while fans become nostalgic for these movies once again, their disdain for the inferior sequels erased by happy memories of seeing Billy The Puppet usher in a new Saw film each Halloween. We'd remember that initial concept of two strangers locked in a room, the test subjects of a sadistic cancer patient hell bent on dispensing his own form of moral justice as he counted down the calendar days left on his own life.
"Let's play a game..." is a phrase that's become the franchise's tagline before it took such a creative free fall in subsequent installments that even its star, Tobin Bell, sounded like he lost interest in delivering it. While the 2004 original was less a horror movie than an intense psychological thriller, most of its successors failed miserably at building on it, hanging their hats on the worst elements of what was initially a brilliant concept. Plot and narrative was abandoned in favor of trying to come up with the most disgusting and elaborate Jigsaw traps possible, each one more graphic than the last. And for a while, as bad as the movies had become, the shock value still worked and audiences ate it up. But what Saw couldn't survive was the dilemma each new writer and director kept trying to put a band-aid over in each sequel: The antagonist was dead.
Given all the capabilities of modern cinematic storytelling, killing off John Kramer/AKA Jigsaw in only the third film showed incredibly poor foresight, often forcing the filmmakers to embarrassingly work their way around it in the most absurd ways. By claiming it's about his "legacy," introducing hidden apprentices, shoehorning Bell into silly, nonsensical flashback scenes, and even littering the storylines with more law enforcement officials than most CBS procedurals. And that's not to mention physicians, ex-wives and insurance agents. Each sequel became overcrowded and needlessly convoluted to cover for Jigsaw's absence, straying further and further from its original concept. And because of this, EVERY MOVIE FELT THE SAME. That's the problem most in need of fixing.
So, the question becomes whether The Spierig Brothers concede by resting on the same tired formulas or try something different and adventurous with the benefit of a fresh, clean slate. The answer ends up being a little bit of both, which may not be enough sustain this moving forward. While they don't strip the whole thing down and dismantle it as I'd hoped, the good news is that it's the best written and directed post-Jigsaw death sequel yet, despite sharing some of the same issues its predecessors did. There were many points where it felt as if the movie would truly let go, before delivering a clever final twist that undeniably works in the moment, but also serves as an unfortunately painful reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
It's been 10 years since the death of the infamous Jigsaw killer, John Kramer (Bell), but when a perpetrator on the run finds himself cornered by police detectives Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) and Hunt (Clé Bennett), he talks of being forced to play a "game" while activating a mysterious triggering device in his hand. They shoot, sending him into a coma. Meanwhile, five people are being held captive in a barn with buckets over their heads and a metal chain around their neck, dragging them toward a wall of spinning buzzsaws.
With each instructed by the voice of Jigsaw to make a blood sacrifice in order to move on, Carly (Brittany Allen), Ryan (Paul Braunstein), Mitch (Mandela Van Peebles) and Anna (Laura Vandervoort) are the four survivors. They move on to the next stage, with Jigsaw's voice informing them of more sadistic traps in store to repent for their lies and moral transgressions. As bodies turn up left and right, Halloran and Hunt start to wonder how any of this is possible, enlisting the help of ex-vet and forensic pathologist Logan (Matt Passmore) and his Jigsaw-obsessed assistant Eleanor (Hannah Emily Anderson). It isn't long before their suspicions turn to both, even with evidence piling up that the unthinkable is true and Jigsaw could still be very much alive.
It could be read as a promising sign that the film opens not in a dark, dingy, dirty basement as most previous entries have, but in broad daylight in the midst of a police chase. In simultaneously preparing us for something completely different while also invoking the terribly familiar, the scene serves a microcosm for what The Spierig Brothers plan on delivering over the next hour and a half. While the introduction of multiple law enforcement officers had me groaning, and it's a stretch to say they put an entirely fresh coat of paint on the franchise, there are noticeable changes and improvements that help wash the taste of those sequels out of our mouths. Action taking place in actual daylight would be one, as are more visually intriguing locations such as a rustic barn. It's nice to be able to clearly see everything that's going on for a change, knowing they can still deliver an occasionally dark basement when necessary.
With a slightly more polished look to the proceedings, this doesn't carry the same straight to VOD that too many of its sequels did. Smaller touches, like Jigsaw upgrading from a tape recorder to a flash drive, a new, improved look to Billy The Puppet and some tinkering with the infamous musical cue ("Zep's Theme") work really well. And while it's easy to criticize some of the decisions made, Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger's script is uncharacteristically tight, especially when dealing with the four chosen subjects in Jigsaw's main trap. In that respect, it does bring the franchise back to basics, heavily focusing on what each have done to "deserve" what's happening to them. Their backstories don't disappoint, with the heinous nature of one arguably packing an even bigger punch than the intended twist that arrives in the final minutes. Unfortunately, what happens outside the barn is a bit of a mess, again overcomplicating a plot that should be relatively simple.
With two pairs of police detectives and medical examiners, it often feels like a chore keeping up with them and their motivations. And while the intention is clearly to set each of them up as a potential suspect or copycat killer, we've been around this block so many times that the mere thought of another Jigsaw apprentice is enough to turn me off of the franchise permanently. The more characters and suspects you have, the less they all mean, and if there's one serious fault in the screenplay, it's on a conceptual level, as the series continues to rub our faces in its inability to streamline anything. That said, this does the most competent job balancing this overabundance of characters, even if their presence complicates the story in ways it wouldn't with one strong law enforcement protagonist going up against Jigsaw.
While it may seem unreasonable to expect a Saw sequel to go to deep, cerebral places at this point, it still wouldn't hurt to minimize the excessive plotting in favor of a little more psychology. That all the characters have purposes that logically come to light by the end is somewhat of a miracle, but the series' many filmmakers have always forced themselves into a situation of cleaning up whatever narrative mistakes preceding entry left behind. That's why a completely fresh start was imperative, free from the tiresome formulas that ran the series into the ground.
For audiences, the police and forensic pathologists' exist in this installment to answer the only question on viewers' minds: Is Jigsaw actually alive? Obviously, revealing that constitutes too big a spoiler, but maybe the question should instead be whether that revelation would be any more or less damaging than the ridiculous ways they've had his "work" continue post-mortem, with increasingly diminished returns.
Without giving it all away, this is Tobin Bell's most purposeful outing in a while and his seemingly more motivated performance reflects it. He came to play this time and isn't relegated to the requisite "blink and you'll miss him" flashback cameo that's made each sequel appearance less essential than his last. While no one would claim the movies are known for their acting, Bell is consistently the exception, his understanding of John Kramer's psychological motivations creepily filling in the blanks where the writing often fails him.
With more to work with here, the screenplay provides a reason for Bell's presence and he sticks around long enough to make it count. If the long layoff reminded us of anything, it's that so many of the franchise's failings can be directly tied to the increased reduction of his role in the sequels. This partially corrects that, and the performances that surround him are mostly suitable for the series standard, with Vandervoort and Passmore doing the most with what they're given.
There's legitimate suspense in the idea that Jigsaw's grave may need to be dug up, and in the increasingly likely scenario he won't be in it, teasing us with the possibility the franchise may be forced to do something completely different. But the tension is short-lived, as the focus again moves away from Jigsaw to the cops and forensic pathologists trying to implicate and expose each other, as the true purpose of that buckethead game starts fully revealing itself. Taken for what it is, it's all pretty well constructed, capped off with a final twist that's reminiscent of the first sequel in how it toys with audience perceptions of what we're exactly seeing.
While nothing that occurs in the third act is poorly written or an outright disappointment, it does feel like business as usual, revealing nearly all the major changes to be cosmetic and superficial. In the end, it's still all about how gruesome and graphic the traps are, how high the body count, and the number of poorly developed ancillary characters introduced to extend the series. In other words, we're right back where we started. And it shouldn't be lost on anyone that there's a comfort in that for both the franchise's producers and its fans, who generally want to know that what they're getting into doesn't differ to much from what they originally signed on for.
Going in, there was a certain curiosity in finding out whether there's still a place for Saw in 2017 and whether doing this again all these years later would be like hopping back on Billy The Puppet's tricycle. For both better and worse, it is. And yet again we're left scratching our heads at how they'll possibly be able squeeze even more out of this property, as there are apparently more sequels planned. But we should just know by now to stop questioning how they continue suckering us into gladly returning for more punishment.