Saturday, October 21, 2017

Side By Side: SAW VI (2009) vs. SAW 3D: THE FINAL CHAPTER (2010)

Welcome to another installment of SIDE BY SIDE, where we dissect the differences and similarities between two films, be it a remake/reboot with its original, a sequel with its original, or two similar movies. For the past three weeks, we have been discussing the Saw series, one of the most ambitious horror projects in recent memory, as we prepare for the October 28th release of Jigsaw. In part one, we coverd the first film. Part two covered chapters two and three, and part three, chapters four and five. This week we come to the end of the original series with the final two installments, SAW VI (2009) and SAW 3D: THE FINAL CHAPTER (2010).


Toward the end of its run, the Saw series began to show signs of its running out of steam. As I've said previously, I believe this began with Saw V, which featured more gratuitous gore than the previous installments. I don't know why this is, but I suspect it was fan service in an attempt to keep moviegoers interested enough to stay with the series to the end. It's tempting to write this off as the people behind the franchise demonstrating a cynical attitude towards their fan base, assuming them to be stupid people only interested in blood and death, and it's possible that some of the people who went to these movies did so for that reason. But consider this: none of these three final installments lost money at the box office, according to IMDB. I have said before that judging a film's quality primarily by its box office take is the wrong way to appreciate motion pictures, but even so, filmmaking is a business, and in this case, the business made money. So if the folks at Twisted Pictures were being cynical about their fans, were they unwise in doing so?

I consider this question, not only in reflecting on the increased gore and shock value of the latter chapters, but also the nakedly political slant which drives the games that occur in this chapter. Bear with me, Occasional Reader, I understand my job is to talk about movies, not politics. But the fact remains that Saw VI was released in the aftermath of both the 2008 American Presidential campaign and the recession which began that same year. So when this installment begins with two "predatory lenders" cutting themselves into pieces in hope of surviving one of Jigsaw's deadly games, and then continues with the head of a medical insurance company being forced to decide who lives and dies among his own employees, the message of this story is not lost on me.

My problem is not that this chapter felt the need to speak out on the issues of the day, though I do question the sense of it in context. My problem is that the message dominates the story. The film even stops dead during a flashback so that John Kramer can give a short speech explicitly about the problem with health coverage in this country. This doesn't "ruin" the movie as such; Tobin Bell is one of those actors to whom I would happily listen as they talk about anything. But the message as presented is lifted directly from the social media echo-chamber, where one side bears all the guilt, and the other is utterly blameless. This is rarely the true case, if ever, and another reason why I'm not a fan of Hollywood getting involved in politics at all. It typically serves as unthinking reinforcement of established beliefs devoid of any attempt at persuasion, and not commentary. The games in Saw VI are a case of the former. Which makes the gratuitous violence in the game's ending more porn-y than it would have been otherwise.

Fortunately, there's still the larger narrative to be served here. Special Agent Strahm is dead, and thanks to a series of red herrings planted by Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), the FBI thinks Strahm was an accomplice in the Jigsaw killings. But again we will see that Hoffman (the real Jigsaw accomplice) is not as clever as he thinks he is, and his efforts to throw the FBI off his trail will soon unravel. Meanwhile, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell) begins to play her part in Jigsaw's end game, and we learn that the contents of the box left to her in his will are a collection of envelopes which contain instructions regarding final Test Subjects. Most interestingly, we learn in one scene that Jill and Hoffman know about each other's involvement in Jigsaw's work, though they do not see eye-to-eye.

New blanks are filled in regarding the events of previous chapters. For example, we finally learn what was in the letter Amanda received in the third film, and why it affected her so deeply. I particularly love this reveal, because it has bearing on events that were pivotal in John Kramer's metamorphosis into Jigsaw, specifically the death of Gideon, John and Jill's unborn son, by miscarriage. Since we've already seen that Kramer tracked down Cecil, the junkie who was responsible for Jill's miscarriage, and punished him in the first Jigsaw game, this reveal carries implications that Amanda was never randomly selected as a test subject to begin with. It certainly jives with our knowledge that many of the later test subjects weren't chosen randomly, and it invites speculation of how things might have gone had the third film ended differently.

While I am disappointed with the message of this movie, that element serves as a vehicle for a point which pays off in this film's climax. Amid all the talk about how insurance companies deciding who to cover is wrong, John makes the point that the will to live is one of the unknowable X-factor's in a person's character. This characteristic, he says, can't be known until a person faces their own death. This statement comes back in the climax of this movie, when Jill, following Jigsaw's instructions, traps Hoffman in one of the Reverse Bear-Traps from the first film. The end of this sequence is gory, but in this case it works, because it instantly changes our perception of Detective Hoffman. Following the mistakes we've seen him make in his efforts to eliminate those who can expose his double identity, and how close these mistakes have brought him to ruin, we may be tempted to begin viewing Hoffman as something of a bumbling idiot, and it's hard to take such a character seriously. And then we see the lengths to which he goes to get himself out of the Reverse Bear-Trap, and we are shown that Hoffman may not be as smart as Jigsaw, but he is ruthless as he is brutal, and that makes him dangerous in his own way.

And so we come to the end of our story, Saw 3D: The Final Chapter, hereafter referred to as Saw VII because that's what it is. Jill has failed to kill Hoffman, and in this chapter we learn that she is aware of her failure, and is now running for her life. Hoffman has successfully killed all those who knew of his identity, and is now free to drink his fill of the brutality that is the MO of the Jigsaw Killer. But there's one final unresolved plot thread to tie up first.

Dr Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) is alive. This film opens by finally spilling the details of his fate after the first movie ended, and, since this is the last chapter of the serial, soon reveals that Gordon has become another accomplice of Jigsaw. This reveal answers the lingering question of how an engineer (John Kramer), a junkie (Amanda) and a police detective (Hoffman) were able to setup games that involved things like foreign objects hidden in eye sockets or eyes sewed shut without blinding the subject. It will also bear on the ending of Hoffman's reign of terror at the end of this film.

Since all the previous law enforcement officers we've met in this tale are now known or presumed to be dead, apart from Hoffman, a new cop is thrust into the tale. Detective Gibson (Chad Donella) doesn't get a whole lot of back story, other than he knew Hoffman when, and there's some old bad blood between the two. He's not even the Test Subject of this film's game du jour. He's really just there to move the story along, give Hoffman someone to taunt, and then die when the tale is done with him. But someone has to play that part, and while he's not my favorite cop in Saw, he does the role justice.

After the adolescent Facebook rant that was the games of the previous film, the game for this chapter gets back to something halfway plausible in the larger tale. Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flanery, aka "That Guy who played Norman Reedus's brother in Boondock Saints) has been making a name for himself as a self-help author and speaker sharing the philosophies he's learned after surviving one of Jigsaw's games. He's even gone so far as to start a support group for fellow survivors. The only problem is that Mr. Dagen is lying; he was never a Test Subject, but that is about to be corrected. Similar to the game from Saw III, Dagen's own life is not at stake. Instead, he must save the lives of the people who helped him spread his lie. To make a long story short, he doesn't have as much good luck as Jeff did.

On the one hand, I don't like Saw VII. This one pulls out all the stops for gore and seems focused solely on presenting kills that are very uncomfortable to watch, or are so outlandishly inventive as to be darkly funny. Gore for gore's sake is not my thing. Also, this movie did not need to be presented in 3D, and only uses the technology for the old "it's coming right at us" jump effect, for example when Dr Gordon throws a hack saw directly at the camera near the end. But in spite of this, I have to acknowledge that Saw VII never quite loses track of itself. The film is at its goriest when Hoffman is turned loose. From the opening game, to Jill's nightmare, to a sequence in which we finally get to see what that Reverse Bear-Trap actually does to a person's head when it goes off (ugh), the story doesn't shy away from finally being able to show Hoffman's true colors. He only became an accomplice to Jigsaw because he got to kill people in inventive ways and get away with it, and as much as I don't enjoy them, these kills are good hard look into the darkness at the heart of the character.

On the other, I appreciate the "be careful what you wish for" theme of Bobby Dagan's game. He wanted to be a Jigsaw survivor, so now he gets the chance to become one, and I confess I enjoy watching this publicity hound get a heavy dose of karma. The fact that his final test is the very thing he claims to have done in his previous experience seals it.

Saw VII completes the story of this series nicely, and while I agree another Saw movie is not entirely necessary, this story ends with the door not entirely closed against one. Lieutenant Rigg could return, for while we saw him get shot at the end of the fourth film, we never saw him actually die, and one of the lessons running through this series is that no character is dead until we see the corpse. Doctor Gordon could get up to more shenanigans, or it could be one of his accomplices. I noticed that when Gordon captures Detective Hoffman at the end of this film, he has two masked henchmen with him. What are their stories?

And so I'm prepared to give the idea of a Saw reboot a day in court. Is it a play for the nostalgia dollar? Almost certainly. But there have been nostalgia reboots that worked out well, though I confess Tron: Legacy is the only one I can think of right now. Regardless, even though I wish the latter films in this series hadn't gotten so caught up in fan service, I appreciate what the Saw series attempted to do: tell a long narrative at a pace reminiscent of the matinee serials of the 1930s. I hope another film studio tries this again one day, because it was the attempt that made this series interesting.

Saw VI is rated R for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, and language.
Saw 3D: The Final Chapter is rated R for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, and language.

Robert's Scores:
Saw VI: 4 / 10
Saw 3D: The Final Chapter: 5.5 / 10 

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