I Want to Play a Game: Reviewing All the Saw Movies

Saw

I want to play a game.

The rules are simple. You can continue enjoying the Saw films, but you have to admit that Jigsaw’s philosophy is bullshit and he doesn’t even apply it in a consistent way. The evidence is all around you. The offenses that he considers capital crimes in just this first film include adultery, drug addiction, insurance fraud (aka stealing money from massive, evil, exploitative corporations that shouldn’t exist and deserve to be stolen from), and in several cases just literally being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And how does he punish these “offenders”? Supposedly by placing them in situations that they could escape from if they are willing to go through pain or make a difficult decision. But is that always so? Consider Donnie Greco, whose part in Amanda’s game was being drugged so he couldn’t move. What was his choice? What was his test? Just lying there while Amanda gutted him to find a key to free herself. There was no opportunity for him to survive by proving himself worthy in Jigsaw’s twisted view of the world. Or Paul Leahy, who did exactly as Jigsaw demanded by trying to crawl out of the razor wire but died of blood loss. What was his choice? What was his test?

Instead, and here you should feel free to imagine that really catchy tune that kicks in when everything falls into place during the major twist/reveal at the end of each of these things, if you are to continue enjoying these films, do so secure in the knowledge that Jigsaw is the fucking bad guy, and there is nothing admirable about his actions. You will also have to ignore the fact that even a few people who have worked on these films, including Saw II/III/IV director Darren Lynn Bousman, apparently view Jigsaw in that light. (Seriously, Darren. He’s a “vigilante”? I’m never spending any time alone in a room with you.)

Once you’ve dissuaded yourself of this notion, you might enjoy the fact that the first film is a surprisingly stripped-down horror film that boasts the confident direction of James Wan, a pretty fantastic cast (or at least one that I enjoy a great deal), and honestly a pretty fucking awesome twist. (At the very least, it’s arguably the most drama that has ever been wrung out of a stage direction that probably read “[character] stands up.”) You might also continue to enjoy how bloody and indulgent the sequels are. (I sure do.)

Or you can subscribe to the philosophy of a self-aggrandizing sadist who doesn’t even follow his own rules and who thinks snap-judgments of other people’s lives are sufficient cause for murder. And be intellectually aroused by how “clever” it is that he doesn’t “technically” kill anyone but puts them in situations where they’ll probably die. (If you’re wondering, we do have a word for this! It’s called “murder.”)

Live or die. Make your choice.

(B-Rank)

Saw II

Tobin Bell’s expanded role is the best thing about Saw II. His performance is unnerving in all the right ways. Jigsaw is still full of shit, though. I’m genuinely a little queasy about the fact that some people actually eat up his “Darwinism is being subverted by modern conveniences” horseshit. An oft-repeated refrain of his that you first start hearing in Saw II is that “those who do not appreciate life do not deserve life,” and honestly fuck you if you think you get to decide who does and doesn’t deserve life.

Anyway, Jigsaw finally finds an offender who deserves to be punished–a cop who framed a bunch of folks–and the very fitting punishment he devises is… locking his son and a bunch of the people he framed in a torture house to either die in his traps or kill each other off one-by-one.

… I’m sorry, what? Can one of you folks who masturbate to how “smart” and “rational” this asshole is please lay an explanation for this one on me? Pretty please? And once you’re done with that, can you explain how any of this is supposed to tie into his stated philosophical hard-on for forcing people to “appreciate life”? Thanks ever so much in advance.

Anyway, updates to the list of things Jigsaw considers capital offenses: being an informant (i mean, ok, this is often true but give me more context), having spent time in prison for any reason, and being a cop’s son. Alrighty, then!

I do love the way the ending parallel’s Saw’s ending, though, especially with the way it thrusts Amanda forward as the new evil serial killer going forward. (If only the series had… stuck to that, but we’ll get there.)

This is also the first film in the series to introduce us to what will become a series-long format of a bunch of apparent strangers (who often aren’t actually strangers as it turns out) stuck in a house full of traps and trying to figure out what the fuck is going on while they’re killed off one by one in increasingly elaborately bloody fashion, all leading to either a twist or just a moment of revelation where that unfairly catchy theme plays over a montage of everything falling into place. (This last bit also happened in the first film, but the rest of the film followed an entirely different formula.)

… honestly? This formula isn’t half bad. It leads to all of these films being, if you ask me, passable at worst. And Saw II, despite being the origin of this formula, already throws a wrinkle into it in the form of having Xavier turn into a cross between a bully and a battering ram, thwarting any attempts for the group to work together to solve Jigsaw’s traps. I found him just annoying as hell the first time I watched this, but for some reason it really worked for me this time around.

None of the traps in this one particularly did anything for me, but I appreciate the way the series quickly found a groove that worked for it and hit the ground running.

(B-Rank)

Saw III

One of Amanda’s Jigsaw videos chastises her victim for being “more comfortable in chains than you are in freedom” and, really, I came out to have a good time and I’m honestly feeling so attacked right now.

Amanda has some serious lezdom vibes in this. From the way she grabbed Lynn’s hair while she was collaring her (also, y’know, she was collaring her), to the always weirdly erotic scene where the scary villain gives their captive a deadly weapon and talks through the scenario of that captive killing them and somehow simultaneously shows them that they can’t kill them.

This one has kind of a reverse Saw II thing going on where the traps in Jeff’s game are actually a lot more ambitious than any of the traps in Saw II, but the story is just infuriating. You basically just follow Jeff around while he can’t decide whether or not he has a shred of human decency in him to save people who have hurt him in the past and he belatedly decides, yeah, he should probably save them at the point where they’re already dead.

Despite the traps being a lot more impressive in this, the scene that made me squirm the most was definitely Lynn performing brain surgery on John. The thing was so unbelievably cringey. Remind me never to get brain surgery.

If I were rating this solely on the basis of Jeff’s game, it would be a whole lot lower. Luckily it also has all that stuff going on with Amanda, Lynn, and John. And yeah, John is still full of shit and there’s nothing inherently worse about what Amanda is doing. John even says, “I don’t condone murder and I despise murderers.” Are you fucking kidding me, dude?

Anyway, regardless of how full of shit John is or how annoying some elements of the plot were, the series starts getting pretty indulgent at this point, and honestly, it’s a lot of fun (as long as you enjoy gore).

(B-Rank)

Saw IV

There’s some shit about this that bothers me, of course. The fact that a woman whose only “crime” as far as I can tell is being a sex worker and a man who rapes and batters women are considered morally equivalent elicited the biggest eyeroll from me ever. But the real reason this is my least favorite of the series other than Saw: The Final Chapter is that the game was just pretty “meh.” (Also, this entry can be my sacrificial lamb for the fact that we decided not to follow through on Amanda being Jigsaw’s successor.)

The ending twist is held up by many as one of the most convoluted of the series, but I honestly found it to be arguably the most enjoyable feature of this particular ride on the torture porn wagon. It was set up quite well with the opening scene seeming to establish the timeframe of the film (and that timeframe being exactly what you would expect based on how the previous film ended).

Other than that, for me this is just a big pile of “meh.”

(B-Rank)

Saw V

It isn’t difficult for me to understand why a lot of people have checked out of the series long before this point, nor is it difficult for me to understand why people consider Saw V aggressively mediocre even if it’s addressed in terms of its own merits. Honestly, though? I have a hell of a good time watching it.

Part of it is undoubtedly some residual nostalgia from this somehow being the only Saw movie I ever saw in the theaters. The first few films in the series all came out during a part of my life when I “didn’t like horror movies” and considered myself far too morally upright to possibly enjoy “torture porn.” Although these attitudes faded a bit before Saw V hit theaters, it just wasn’t a big priority to me. I think I ended up seeing the first film on TV or on a friend’s DVD or something and enjoyed it? But when Saw V hit theaters I was in one of those situations where I was in college, my friends were like “hey do you want to go see a gory movie?” and, you know what, fuck yeah I wanted to go see a gory movie. And any attempt by me to objectively evaluate this movie is going to be seriously hampered by the rewarding experience that answered this decision. Even without any knowledge of the (thoroughly impenetrable by this point) continuity of the series, I found Saw V to be immensely satisfying, especially seeing it with a group of people who were basically just like “it’s Halloween, gimme some fucking blood.”

The opening of this one is just always going to be one of my favorite openings of the entire series. That pendulum trap is rad as fuck. The drowning trap that Strahm finds himself in (and the lengths he has to go to survive it) is also a favorite of mine. The shotgun trap Jigsaw uses to convert Hoffman to his cause was alright (mostly I liked the cuffs, dude doesn’t skimp on his bondage implements), but an issue you run into with that concept is that it’s been done to death in other media, and my mind just immediately jumped to times I’ve seen it done better. I think the best implementation of that trope I’ve seen was actually in Joy Ride of all things. It’s a pretty awful movie on the whole, but that scene is worth checking out. It’s one of the lengthiest scenes I’ve ever seen of someone actually being bound and gagged (rather than just being in that state at the beginning of a scene) in a film, so, you know, if you’re into that kind of thing.

And while it might be a bit “meh” compared to other endings of the series, because this was my first Saw sequel, the ending with Hoffman in that glass case and Strahm trapped outside of it with that damn earworm of a theme blaring as Strahm begins to comprehend the hopelessness of his situation will just always have a special place in my heart. I know films 3-6 probably would’ve been dramatically superior if we swapped Hoffman out for Amanda (though, to be honest, Hoffman is a lot more interesting in VI than he is in IV or V), but it doesn’t stop me for enjoying these for what they are.

Fuck, these movies are fun.

(B-Rank)

Saw VI

I certainly appreciate the searing indictment of privatized medicine on display here, though Jigsaw’s moralizing is awful as usual. Like, in the trap with the secretary versus the other employee, apparently the other employee deserves to die because he’s single? Like, that’s the “right” choice? I’m not really sure what that’s supposed to be saying about the insurance industry, but taken in isolation, let me just say fuck right off Jigsaw. And I say that as someone who isn’t even close to being single (though I’m sure he’d find a reason to off me for being polyamorous, queer, and not interested in having children).

While all that’s going on, we also follow Hoffman as he juggles the demanding schedule of a double workday as a serial killer and FBI agent while evading suspicion. This stuff is super well done, and Hoffman struggles to act naturally around his colleagues in pretty believable ways, leading to quite a bit of interesting tension.

(B-Rank)

Saw: The Final Chapter

This is probably the worst film of the franchise and it’s still pretty damn serviceable–and definitely has its moments. That makes it stack up pretty favorably to the worst film in most other franchises, right?

There are definitely things to complain about in the entire Jill vs. Hoffman plot, right up to and including its pretty perfunctory conclusion. But those really pale in comparison to my frustration with Bobby’s game. None of it made sense even according to Jigsaw’s fucked up logic and sense of justice! Bobby failed to save all the people in his life at every turn, so they all died and he lived? His life was never even in jeopardy! This especially makes the least sense with his wife. Although all of the other people he fails to save along the way were at least complicit in his lies, she was entirely innocent of them. Why is she being punished for believing and loving him?

Really, when you get right down to it, this is the most misogynistic Saw film by a mile and a half. The cold open has two bros deciding to let a girl both of them slept with die because she’s a liar or something. Cute. This is then followed by Bobby failing to save all of the people in his life, most of whom are women, often in very gendered traps. You get him yelling at one of them to “shut the f**k up” and covering her mouth because of the way the trap is set up. Great. Okay. Fine. Then Jigsaw’s recording literally calls his wife his “trophy,” and punishes him by killing her. Meaning she’s literally an object. Meanwhile, over in Hoffman vs. Jill land, Jill has basically zero agency and then is killed by the reverse beartrap. Again with women and mouths. This movie has the least awesome kind of oral fixation.

You also have to love that one of the traps was based around punishing racists when I counted, what, one black character in the entire movie? B+, guys. Also, Hoffman’s entire plan would’ve kind of been blown if that trap hadn’t worked out, right? Or was he just going to keep going around rounding up random racists until he got a group that failed? I’m not saying that’s a deal-breaker, actually.

So, yeah, Saw: The Final Chapter is kind of a hot mess and on top of that it’s pretty gross conceptually and thematically. But you can’t really say it isn’t watchable. Compelling, even. I know it’s the lowest and most basic test of a film, but it’s one a lot of bad films fail, so you at least have to give it that. Moreover, although the logic behind a lot of the traps was a series-low, the traps themselves worked pretty fantastically at producing a visceral response. Many of them made me squirm in my seat with physical empathy. Again, this “Final Chapter” fails a lot of the big picture stuff, but at least it nails a lot of the small stuff, and that isn’t nothing.

(C-Rank)

Jigsaw

If you aren’t already a pretty devoted fan of this series, there’s basically nothing I can say to recommend this film to you. There’s nothing here to make it worth your while. Just… don’t. If you are already a devoted fan of this franchise, you’re going to see this anyway, so I similarly have nothing to offer you.

If you find yourself in that latter category, there are a bunch of things about this unnecessary and belated followup that are going to frustrate you beyond belief, but if you’ve stuck with this series for this long you’re used to that by now. In terms of things I personally found frustrating, this thing doubles down on the whole Jigsaw Was Right mentality and then some. Also, I’m not really sure how anyone could possibly not see the “twist” coming from a mile and a half away.

But anyway, I’m trash so I enjoyed this well enough for what it was.

(C-Rank)

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