After a seven-year hiatus from the screen, is it so wrong that someone would be disappointed with the return of horror cinema’s premier self-proclaimed ethicist? Jigsaw, the torture porn icon infamous for subjecting those he deems bad or not knowing the true worth of a life, makes his comeback with an eponymous film that wishes it could be as thoughtful, slick, or as good at slaying as, say, Beyoncé. He’s up to his old tricks again, even though he’s been dead for a decade, and by old tricks, I mean old-and-musty.
It’s somewhat shocking that, more than half a decade later, the “Saw” series still struggles to deliver thrills without tangling itself up in a plot that doesn’t seem to care about any of its thematic concepts beyond a very surface understanding of them. After the third entry, that’s always been the weakest link of the franchise; no matter how sprawling it made its story, adding or knocking off apprentices and followers here and there, “Saw” seemed to have little understanding of the way that guilt and innocence, savior and victim had weight or could be pathologized within victims.
Only the first film, a tiny diamond in the rough released in 2004, was able to explore obsession and moral hypocrisy in fairly interesting ways. But this eighth film, whose ad campaign once again recalls both biblical and cultish strains (confession, following, saving), doesn’t really get the implications of its own mythos.
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It’s more of the same sequel stuff that anyone even partially familiar with John Kramer’s filmic progeny will recognize: cross-cutting between five people stuck in one of Jigsaw’s elaborate games, being diced up one by one like a splatter-happy Agatha Christie; a police investigation into the victims of the game by corrupt police officer Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) and Logan (Matt Passmore), a coroner with PTSD; and a hunt to save the players before their corpses indicate “game over.”
That “Jigsaw” returns to this formula is not the bad thing; it’s that none of it is very interesting. The game we watch is boring, the players mostly lifeless, exposition on their sins unable to compensate for their lack of personality. The traps aren’t any more or less elaborate than they were seven years ago, even a decade ago, nor are the deaths. “Jigsaw” is not unlike “Saw II,” which is not unlike “Home Alone,” but when you’ve had so many versions of the same iteration and concept, the traps around every corner are less surprising and, arguably, less grotesque.
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Isn’t the “Saw” franchise about spectacle? If the first film was legitimately interrogating the gradations of good and evil, moral quandaries, and choices made at the expense of others, almost all of the films since have been about the grandeur of splatter, positioning Jigsaw as the Rube Goldberg of the Grand Guignol. There are a couple of impressive set pieces in “Jigsaw,” but the traps seem fairly rudimentary, and it’s up to the camera work to provide the needed jolts.
If the traps can’t keep interest, maybe its thematic preoccupations can? Nope. “Jigsaw Saves” (the religious chant that serves as the film’s tag-line) and this disgusting trap-laden barn-turned-confessional do little to add any depth to what was established in the first film, nor do they make sense of anything that had been elaborated upon in any of the sequels. It’s a shame because the self-mythological element, that Jigsaw would have quasi-disciples continuing his work and fleshing out his legacy, is an interesting idea on paper.
Jigsaw is a serial killer, even if he stands by the idea that his victims have to make their own choice, and even if any survivors come down with Stockholm syndrome. But that they, too, would be convinced of the same kind of moral superiority, that they, too, can play God, and rely on a fascistic, hypocritical, insular set of beliefs as a sort of deadly ideology, is reminiscent of both more and less overtly sadistic political figures. (There is, admittedly, a nod to “fake news” in the film.)
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The problem is that this idea is never really fleshed out, especially in this film. When there has been room for Jigsaw’s legacy and mythos to grow, the only impression of that is the short mention of a website dedicated to fans and users uncomfortably interested in the killer’s reign. There’s little indication in the film of the social impact that Jigsaw has had on media, culture, police investigation, etc., beyond throwaway lines of shock and awe that have been used in previous films to denote how surprised characters are that there are more deaths happening.
Ultimately, the film’s Achilles heel, sliced open, is its lack of real interest in being literally anything beyond just another addition to the series. Not even its consideration of purity, sinfulness, and salvation seem to matter, much less the complexity of good and evil, or what those ideas even mean philosophically. And before someone argues that such concepts never mattered to the series, the original film made a fairly interesting argument less about good and evil and more about how one man understood those concepts.
“Jigsaw” doesn’t bring anything new to the table. “Saw,” as a franchise, is always interesting in concept, but the execution always seems a little bloodless.