OCTOBER 21, 2009
Both Saw IV and V played better in repeat viewings; my general dissatisfaction with the films when I watched them in theaters was eroded on a 2nd view, when their flaws (weak protagonists chief among them) were easier to digest, and their strengths (tricky narratives that ‘worked’ with what came before, less of a focus on having wall-to-wall kills) were even more apparent. But Saw VI is an improvement over those two in every way; it’s the best one since III (which it often resembles) and gets the series back on track.
Director Kevin Greutert has been with the series since the original as its editor, so there is probably no one in the world who knows these movies as well as he does. And that pays off with this flashback heavy entry; I don’t think any film in the series has gotten so much use from events in the previous entries. These scenes are represented both by recycled footage as well as “When this event from part ___ was occurring, this is what you DIDN’T see on the other side of the wall” type sequences (if you’re a casual Saw fan, I would suggest revisiting at least parts III and V to help provide a little more context). He even finds ways to answer questions I forgot I had (Amanda’s note from III), primarily using that film’s footage to do so. It’s a bit distracting at times (Costas Mandylor has padded out quite a bit in the past, what, two weeks that these films have taken place?), but it’s a great way of tying up loose ends, and as an editor myself, I loved seeing how those skills can pay off when one ascends to the director’s chair.
But credit must also be given to Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, who have found their footing on their 3rd entry as screenwriters (now that they are doing VII, more Saw films have been written by the pair than have not). With IV they were tasked with making a direct sequel (well, sidequel) to a previous entry that they had nothing to do with, and V was allegedly weakened by meddling throughout the production (which resulted in the loss of how the B story tied into the Saw mythos, among other things). But it seems their story was left intact here, and gets the series back to its original concept about people taking life for granted (something wholly missing from V and largely half-assed in IV - a cop who was trying to do his job? That’s admirable, not damnable).
See, our protagonist this time around is William (Peter Outerbridge - perfectly playing the line between douchey and sympathetic) a health insurance company exec who, as Jigsaw himself points out, decides who lives and dies. Early on we see him deny coverage for a guy with a heart condition, because he failed to report having a cyst on his lip removed when he was a child - which is not as far-fetched as it sounds (Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko had a number of similar stories), and, unsurprisingly, he was also responsible for John Kramer failing to get the treatment he needed for his cancer. So we think he’s complete scum*, but as the film progresses we learn that he’s not as black and white evil as originally expected, and like Jeff in III, his tests largely involve harming himself in order to save others (and unlike III, these people are completely innocent - one is just the mail guy from his company).
And that brings us to the traps, which are, again, the best in quite some time. Too many of the previous film’s traps revolved around people sticking their hands into things, and largely had no thematic tie to the characters. But that is not the case here - every trap is based on choosing who lives or dies, and their designs are all quite inventive as well. My personal favorite is a sort of weighted system, in which William is holding on to two bars (one with each hand) that are ever stretching away from him. These straps are connected to two innocent people, and if he lets one go, that person will die while the other will be saved. So he has to decide which one to save, but his arms are increasingly getting closer to being pulled out of their sockets while he makes up his mind. He could just let go of both and save himself some agony, but again, he’s not a complete ass, and he waits until the last possible second (at much personal expense to his well-being) to finally break down and save one. Great stuff.
Also, having just played the Saw game, I kind of dug the one right after that, where he had to guide someone through a maze that was peppered with steam blasts. He could shut the steam off for her, but that would mean getting blasted himself. Not only is it a cool scene, but as the game had several steam based puzzles, it actually gave the game an inadvertent tie to the series that was not intended in any way (Dunstan and Melton were not involved with the game’s creation). And it ends with a good ol’ fashioned “the key is inside you” thing, which we haven’t seen for a while.
Oh, and series’ fans should get a pretty big chuckle out a throwaway line from Amanda concerning what Hoffman is most useful for. Likewise, there’s a strange, possibly improvised bit from Tobin Bell that I laughed at for at least a minute. The series has never really had much in the way of humor, so it was appreciated and unexpected levity. Also, the health care stuff (along with the opening kill, in which two bank loan folks have to extract their own “pound of flesh”) gives the film a sense of timeliness that no other entry can claim. In fact, it was at this point that I realized for the first time how insular these films are; there has never been any “real world” ties whatsoever; everything from coffee cups to television stations are generic, and no one has ever mentioned a sports team or movie or anything like that. It’s not an issue; I sometimes have trouble identifying with a film that is clearly manufactured, but since this is part 6 and I’m just noticing, it clearly hasn’t been a problem with this particular series.
If the film has any flaw, it’s that it starts off a bit slow while we introduce William and the various folks that he will need to save later. The series is so intertwined, you always end up wondering why you are watching these previously unseen people for so long, and the lengthy backstory involved takes time to set up as well. Also, the Hoffman story is a touch similar to V’s, he is once again mostly wandering around looking at monitors and ruffling through files while trying to maintain his cover (I like that they pay off why he always seems to have a cup of coffee in his hand though). There’s also a bit of unnecessary ret-conning near the end involving Amanda (Shawnee Smith returns - yay! - but is not in the film as much as I expected), which seems to exist solely to re-enforce the fact that Hoffman is a douche. But Christ, for the SIXTH film in as many years to be watchable at all is a laudable achievement; that it only suffers a few minor flaws is damn near miraculous.
After III (the high point for world-wide gross), each subsequent film has made less than the one before, and V was the first since the original to fail to open at #1. Plus they’ve all largely had zero competition on their opening weekends, but that’s not the case this time - not only is Paranormal Activity expanding again, but Cirque De Freak is also opening. That film is PG-13 and the former has been playing for a few weeks, but still - with all of these factors at play, I worry that Saw VI will perform below par, which would be a shame as it is obvious that every effort has been made to get the series back on track and deliver everything fans expect (good traps, answers, and yes - a great twist at the end that I didn’t see coming). Don’t let that happen, folks! Support your local Jigsaw!
What say you?
*I don’t want to spoil the exact nature of it, but he also seems to have forgotten his wife’s birthday - which is precisely what I joked would be the type of person Jigsaw would eventually be going after in my review for Saw IV. Do Marcus and Patrick read this site? If so, stop stealing my jokes!! Or pay me for them. Or put me in VII.