Director: Keven Gruetert
Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Shawnee Smith, Tanedra Howard, Mark Rolston, Betsy Russell, Peter Outerbridge
Running Time: 90 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
If there was ever a case of a "good news, bad news" situation, it's Saw VI. The good news is that this is easily the best installment of the series since the third film and and fixes many of nagging problems that were prevalent in the fourth and fifth entries. Nothing beats having Jigsaw alive and kicking but this is the first film since his untimely demise where his absence doesn't become a distracting, overriding issue. By tightening the plot and narrowing the focus to one man being faced with an intriguing moral decisions, we return to the basic formula and twisted ideology that initially set this horror franchise apart. The flashbacks (which were becoming excessive and overcomplicated) are used more sparingly than usual, chosen more for impact and importance than as a narrative crutch. Gone is the excessive, confusing police business, which at times made the movies feel like "ripped from the headlines" Law & Order episodes. It also features one of the best acting performances by a "test subject" possibly since the original film and two of the best traps in the history of the series.
Firing on all cylinders, longtime Saw editor Kevin Gruetert (taking over directorial duties from Saw V's David Hackl) was three quarters of the way home until arriving at an ending that has to be considered a big letdown given what preceded it and should cause concern for the inevitable future of the franchise (insert your groans at the thought of that prospect here). But most of that blame falls on writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan for being forced to tie up too many loose plot threads they left dangling from previous films in the final minutes of this picture. While the payoffs make perfect logical sense and provide a minimal degree of closure, they just aren't all that satisfying. But that was probably the intention. There's more to come I'm sure.
The strain of continuing a horror saga when your main villain died three films ago is bound to show and it's extremely difficult pleasing demanding fans who've followed the series from the beginning while still moving the story in a forward direction. Thus far, the filmmakers have been able to barely get away with it because the deceased villain is so closely tied to the series' central theme of immortality, which has never been more relevant than in this sixth installment. It's well worth the price of admission just to witness the first Saw film that attempts to tackle a serious social issue. Forget about Michael Moore. Haven't you always wanted to get Jigsaw's thoughts on this country's healthcare crisis?
When we last left off, Jigsaw/John Kramer's (Tobin Bell) apparent successor, Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) escaped through the infamous "glass box," taking the life of Agent Peter Strahm and framing him as an accomplice in Jigsaw's killings. But now, investigator Dan Erikson (Mark Rolston) and the previously presumed dead Agent Lindsey Perez (Athena Karkanis) are beginning to piece together the clues that link a now very worried and vulnerable Hoffman to the crimes. Meanwhile, Jigsaw's latest game is taking place and its subject is insurance executive William Easton (Peter Outerbridge), who determines health coverage based strictly on a formula taking into account a person's age and probability of illness. That formula is seriously tested in cruelest way possible when he's forced, through a series of Jigsaw's games, to apply it in ways he never imagined. Jigsaw's ex-wife, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell) is back again as the mysteries of the box left for her by John and just how much she knows (or doesn't) about the killings, begins to unravel. Shawnee Smith's Amanda also returns in a series of flashbacks focusing on previously undisclosed events from the previous entries. Trying to get the bottom of it all is sensationalistic reporter Pamela Jenkins (Samantha Lemole), whose distortion of Jigsaw's motivations and legacy could make her another one of his targets.
For the first time in many films, it appeared as if some real actual thought went into creating a compelling main test that was tied directly to John Kramer's sick moral philosophy, fit well with his back story without seeming forced, and created a series of compelling moral dilemmas for his victim. Justifiably, the storylines involving the cops closing in on Hoffman and Jill's motives are shoved to the sidelines in favor of this far more interesting story, bolstered by one of the more fascinating flashbacks we've had in the series. When we find out that John's vendetta against William stems from the executive rejecting his health insurance claim for an experimental cancer treatment that could have saved his life, it adds another new dimension to the story. Although, you wonder how such a treatment would be squeezed into Jigsaw's already packed schedule of making videos, setting traps and recruiting various apprentices. I can't pretend it's deep stuff or anything, but it is a smart (if somewhat hysterical) creative decision for a horror series that's almost become a parody of itself at this point attempting to get topical and deal with serious social problems. It also makes the game more personal and disturbing.
Proof of that comes at one point when William, captured and taken to an abandoned zoo, is greeted not by a video message from "Billy The Puppet" like so many of Jigsaw's other victims, but from John Kramer himself. William becomes one of the more interesting test subjects since his occupation and the choices he makes in it lend itself perfectly to the central conceit of the franchise and Outerbridge is so believable in the role. It puts the viewer in an even more uncomfortable position than usual because this guy is difficult to root for when you introduce the overly sensitive subject of health care reform into the equation (a sentence I never thought I'd type in a Saw review).
By Jigsaw's sadistic reasoning, making choices everyday about who lives and dies should be a lot more difficult when you're actually presented with it face-to-face. William's "formula" doesn't take into account someone's "will to live," something we know by now has always been Jigsaw's creed, even from beyond the grave. William's tests become more about moral and philosophical choices than blood and guts, which isn't to say there isn't still plenty of blood and guts. The two best are the "carousel" and the "maze," which are both huge steps up from previous traps in the last few installments. In the case of the spinning "carousel," in which William must decide which of his co-workers survives, the torture is almost completely psychological and it was a surprise just how much is accomplished through dialogue as opposed to bloodshed. Rather than aiming to just come up with technically complicated or "cool" traps this time the writers made an effort have simple, basic ones that instead reflect the predicament of the protagonist. It was a welcome change.
The actual payoff to William's game is also satisfying, which is why it's such a shame that the sub-plot involving Hoffman and Jill Tuck is such a letdown. To the franchise's detriment, an inordinate of time has been spent establishing them as important players in Jigsaw's master plan. Jill, especially, has been hogging a lot of spotlight time in the previous two films with little to show for it. Here, we get our answers but they don't amount to much and offer nothing new in the way of surprises or shocking revelations, which was absolutely necessary given how long they've drawn her story out. The actual contents of the box is a disappointment, which is almost an inevitability when you choose to set up a big mystery like that.
Hoffman (brought to "life" by a droller than ever Mandylor) doesn't exactly cover his tracks too well and must be the guiltiest looking police detective who ever lived. He seems so nervous in the presence of his colleagues throughout the film it's a wonder he doesn't go into full cardiac arrest before they catch on. And the cops are very, very slow to catch on. There are about four twists at the end of this film and while all hold up well from a logical standpoint, they aren't surprising in the least. They exist only to keep this franchise chugging along. Loose ends are tied up but anyone looking for actual closure won't get it, which is fine by me since I wouldn't want to see the series to end like this anyway. The answers given at the end of the film don't seem big enough or justify closing it out, yet I don't think it's a good idea for them to continue going in the same direction either.
Recently, I had a marathon of sorts and watched the entire series in succession and was surprised just how well everything held together (even IV played a little more straightforward than I expected the second time around). Regardless of what you think of this franchise, those involved in the making of it deserve a standing ovation for keeping the films at such a relatively high quality for this long. Despite this being the lowest box office earner yet in the series, I don't know a sixth film in a horror franchise that was ever even able to make a dime, much less open to "mixed reviews" and actually show any kind of creative improvement over its predecessors. That a fifth sequel (!) of a horror movie is getting anything close to a favorable recommendation is nothing short of a miracle if you think about it.
Now that the second trilogy in the series has closed, they've been saying the seventh film will be the last. Yeah...sure. After this film I was left with a stronger impression that this series just may never end. I understand the reluctance to go in a new direction and tinker with a proven formula, but hope the low box office take of this one will make the creative forces sit down and reevaluate their approach going forward. I wouldn't object to a few years off and a re-boot. Of course, I say that every year and still keep coming back for more. But whatever they do, Tobin Bell has to stick around in some form or another despite how ridiculous it's gotten because the supporting players have proven they're just not capable of filling his shoes. As one of the few horror franchises to feature a villain who's given actual backstory and motivation, it's opened itself up to a lot criticism. It's too bad many haters of the series have confused the motives of the villain with that of the filmmakers. They're a big reason why I don't want this to ever end. It's getting to be too much fun listening to them whine and complain every October when the latest Saw film opens.