Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Saw: The Final Chapter
Director: Kevin Greutert
Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Bestsy Russell, Sean Patrick Flannery, Cary Elwes, Chad Donella
Running Time: 90 min.
★★ (out of ★★★★)
Saw: The Final Chapter (released theatrically as Saw 3D), the seventh and supposedly final installment of this long-running horror franchise, is also its worst, combining all the weakest elements of the series into one gigantic mess. Police procedural confusion. Kills for the sake of kills. An needlessly complicated plot. Too many characters. Amateurish acting. Continued emphasis on a pointless feud. Jigsaw relegated to a cameo. Anyone hoping for answers or even just some semblance of coherency will be disappointed. Even the highly anticipated return of one of the franchise's most important figures is botched badly. After coming off the surprisingly strong Saw VI, that film's director (and longtime series editor) Kevin Greutert returns after Twisted Pictures exercised a "contractual clause" in his contract preventing him from directing Paranormal Activity 2 to torture us with this instead. And that makes perfect sense since this looks and feels like someone was blackmailed into making it (possibly at gunpoint). The one thing it does have going for it is unintentional comedy as there were many scenes where I couldn't stop laughing (though not necessarily in a good "this is fun" way), providing some hope that maybe this can enjoy a future shelf life as one of those bad horror cult classics you watch at 2 AM. Fans who stuck with this long-winded saga through thick and thin deserved a reward, not punishment.
As usual, we pick up exactly where the action of the last film left off as the battle over Jigsaw's legacy rages on between rogue detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) and Jigsaw's ex-wife, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell). After failing to kill him with the bear trap, she's now revealed his identity as Jigsaw's successor to authorities and is under protective custody, while officer Matt Gibson (Chad Donella) is hot on his former colleague's trail. But Hoffman's already set his sights on the next game subject, self-help guru Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flannery), who's achieved success as an author and television personality by falsely claiming to have survived a Jigsaw trap. Now in order to save his wife, best friend, publicist and lawyer, he'll have to survive a real one. Further complicating matters is the mysterious reappearance of Jigsaw's most infamous survivor, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes). At last, we finally find out what happened to him after he sawed off his foot and crawled out of the bathroom to apparent safety in the original film.
This installment does give us something we've never seen before in its opening with a trap that takes place in broad daylight as a crowd of onlookers witness two guys in a buzz saw battle for the life of their unfaithful girlfriend in a storefront display window. That's at least something different and bizarre, broadening the scope by moving away from the dark, dingy warehouses and garages the action usually takes place in. It's kind of surreal watching a Saw trap take place under these unusual circumstances, made unintentionally hilarious due to the laughable performances and cheesy gore effects. While the idea of the latest victim being a famous fake survivor milking other people's trauma for profit isn't as hilariously creative as Saw VI's plot of Jigsaw extracting revenge from beyond the grave on a health insurance executive for denying him coverage, it does have a lot of promise. Unfortunately it's undercut by a uninspired performance from Sean Patrick Flannery, who can't convey the charisma of a motivational speaker and isn't slimy enough for us to believe he's capable of manipulating anyone. Also, his "butter hands" Bobby character is portrayed as a total tool, so completely inept at Jigsaw's games that we never doubt for a second he'll die while failing to rescue everyone. This leads to the funniest scene in the film (and possibly the franchise's history) when he has to "guide" his blindfolded friend Cale (Dean Armstrong) across a series of wooden planks and get him a key before he's hanged. Because of the poor acting and confusing direction the whole sequence plays like a Survivor challenge gone mad and I literally had to stop the DVD player I was laughing so hard. As tempting as it is to recommend the film on just the basis of that spectacle, I'll resist.
The Saw series isn't known for containing Oscar caliber performances but the acting all-around in this entry is by far the most embarrassing it's been, not helped any by the inexcusable absence of Tobin Bell who's featured in all of two (!) brief scenes as the deceased Jigsaw/John Kramer. Whether present in small or large doses, Bell's peerless performance was always the driving force behind these movies so here's hoping he doesn't get typecast for life and is given the opportunity to move past this in other roles. He often gave much more than the writing deserved, hardly ever getting proper credit for it. With the filmmakers apparently oblivious to the fact that in the final stretch it's imperative the plot return to its basic roots by being as simple and focused as possible, the ridiculous, never-ending feud between Hoffman and Jill takes center stage on top of everything else. But at least we finally get to see both characters for what they are: Albatrosses sinking this franchise since their initial major appearances in the fourth film. It's clear now that writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan never had plans for either aside from using them as poor stand-ins to distract us from the fact that Jigsaw wasn't around anymore. Their ongoing struggle, much what's happened in Saws IV through VII, and especially the character of Hoffman, is deemed entirely pointless by the events that conclude this film.
The movie delivers the ending we always wanted, not counting on the fact that by the time we got there no one would care. It all feels thrown together at the last minute with the re-appearance of Dr. Gordon coming off as just a bone the producers are throwing at fans to make them happy because they ran out of options. Besides his flashback being clumsily edited and nothing that couldn't have just been inserted into any of the previous sequels, Elwes looks noticeably heavier and almost unrecognizable, which is unavoidable, but off-putting just the same. Since no effort was made to flesh out his back story or provide any kind of explanation for what he's been up to, the producers probably would have been better off just keeping his return a secret and working him into the narrative in a more surprising fashion. Or at least in a way that makes sense and doesn't negate the events that came before. Instead viewers are left feeling as if they've wasted their time.
The central idea this whole foundation of the franchise was built on is absent here, replaced with the most gruesome traps possible as the initial intriguing premise of a dying moralistic serial killer teaching victims a lesson is thrown out the window in favor of continuous, in-your-face murders and gore (the film was re-submitted six times to receive an R rating). The second the filmmakers turned their attention toward topping themselves with the most extreme and graphic traps, they lost their way and a series that started as a compelling mystery thriller devolved into torture-porn horror. If they do eventually reboot, the goal should be to go back to basics since we've already seen what a TV series like Dexter or a film like Se7en is capable of with a similar premise. Those should be the template, with skilled actors and a director experienced in extracting the most from that kind of material.
On the bright side, it's worth a round of applause that it took until the seventh film in the series for this to actually get as bad as everyone's accused it of being since the beginning. You could argue they just ran out of creative gas but in all honesty they've been running on fumes for a while now. It's indicative that as a longtime fan of the series, I couldn't even motivate myself to watch it in theaters (3D or not) and have problems mounting any kind of suitable defense for this fiasco. Going in I didn't believe for a second we'd seen the last of the franchise and now after seeing how open-ended they left it, I'm even surer of that opinion. You can expect a re-boot a few years down the line, after the lingering stench of this final installment dissipates. Until then, it's game over.