Saturday, October 7, 2017

Side By Side: SAW II (2005) vs. SAW III (2006)

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. This week is part two of our series looking back at the Saw franchise, as we prepare for the October 28th release of Jigsaw, the film previously known as Saw VIII. If you missed it, you can read part one, discussing the original film, here. In this installment, we'll be discussing the first two sequels in the franchise: 2005's SAW II, and 2006's SAW III.


Sequels are a divisive topic among the moviegoing public. Given their proliferation in recent years, the fact that it's now expected for a given film or film "universe" to be revisited a time or two (or ten), it's easy to understand why some are burned out on the idea. But just because an idea has been overused does not automatically make that idea "bad". If anything, that kind of popularity is an indicator of how well that idea can work, and I maintain the Saw are, on the whole, examples of the correct use of the sequel as a narrative concept. As I said in our previous discussion, the Saw series is a mystery story. A bloody and inventively violent mystery, to be sure, but a mystery nonetheless. And one of the traits of the best mysteries is that they feed out clues slowly.

At the end of the first film, we learned the identity of the so-called "Jigsaw Killer", and gained some insights into his MO. Most importantly, we learned how the formula of these stories works, and now we are left on our own, to find our way through rest of the tale. But before we are given our fare-thee-well, we get one last refresher. Saw II opens on the beginning of another game, known by posterity as the "Venus Fly Trap". A young man named Michael (Noam Jenkins) awakens to find himself locked into a device that will crush his head unless he can find the key that will release him, which is hidden in a most inconvenient place. As will become the norm with these opening traps, our subject of the moment will be unequal to the task. At first glance, it may seem that these opening games are unnecessary, or that they only serve to set the tone for the story to follow, but at least in this instance, there's a point to it. This opening game is meant to remind us that, as I pointed out previously, Jigsaw's games are winnable. Their stakes are brutally high -- to be perfectly honest, I doubt I could do what's expected of young Michael either, no matter what was on the line -- but they're not impossible, and if those stakes are met, the victim will go free. This will be important to remember later.

This opening also features the serial's first "scream montage", a rapid-edit sequence of the victim(s) of the moment screaming, which will become one of the series more unfortunate staples. They're a good visual way of communicating the victim(s) sense of extreme terror and desperation in their final moments, but the series relies on the set piece too heavily. It's used three times in this movie alone. The scream montage is clearly meant to evoke a strong, visceral reaction, but by the end of the series, they're going to get annoying, because emotion doesn't work on command. Every movie or movie series has it's flaws, and in my opinion, the scream montage is one of Saw's.

Anyway, following Michael's demise, this chapter's main story starts up and we are introduced to Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg), a typical example of the Hollywood caricature of the tough-as-nails, cop-on-the-edge type of police officer . Furthering the stereotype, Detective Matthews is estranged from his wife and son, partly due to his being so driven in his job, but mostly because of a past indiscretion he had with a former partner. Matthews' son, Daniel, has been acting out and getting into trouble, behavior with which Detective Matthews has had it up to the proverbial "here", and this tension only serves to further the gulf between them.

Matthews' descent into Jigsaw's world begins when he is called to a crime scene by his colleague, Detective Allison Kerry (Dina Meyer). The crime scene turns out to be the room in which Michael died in the prologue, and we learn Michael was one of Detective Matthews' regular informants. Clues from this crime scene lead the cops to a warehouse where they find John Kramer (Tobin Bell), the "Jigsaw Killer". Here Matthews discovers that his son has been taken captive and placed in one of Jigsaw's games, the progress of which is being displayed on several monitors. Matthews reacts the way you'd expect. Jigsaw tells him that Matthews' son is "in a safe place", and he will be returned if only the Detective will sit and talk with him awhile. So begins the secondary game which serves as this movie's subplot.

The main game, the one being shown on those monitors, is very similar to the game in the first movie, except more people are involved -- there are seven participants this time, instead of two -- and these people aren't immobilized. But they are trapped, in a decrepit house, and their lives are at stake. The recorded message they find tells them they will be released in three hours. However, the air they're breathing contains a poison gas that will kill them in two hours, unless they can find the antidote, doses of which are hidden throughout the house. The interesting thing about this group is that included in their number is Amanda, the only known survivor of one of Jigsaw's games, who is being made to play again for reasons that are part of the surprise at the end of this chapter.

I will concede this group doesn't have half the chemistry that Dr Gordon and Adam did in the first movie. Most of my problem with them comes from the fact that this group features both of my least favorite horror movie character types. First is Laura (Beverly Mitchell), as the pretty young thing who is nice to look at, but becomes a total liability once sh*t gets anywhere within shouting distance of real. Second is the musclebound meathead, a role filled by Xavier, a career punk and frequent flyer of the American Criminal Justice System, played by one "Franky G". Both of these characters will develop beyond their initially tiresome state, but they will coax more than a few eye-rolls out of you until then.

In some ways, this part of Saw II is like a redux of the game from the original movie, minus the requirement that any member of the group die by another's hand. As before, these people have to work together to get out of their predicament, and they fail spectacularly. Maybe that's the reason why this group has such lackluster chemistry; all the script really calls for them to do is scream at each other and then die, each at their appointed time. They don't have to maintain the kind of dynamic that Gordon and Adam had, and it kind of works. All the characters in this group are "scum of society" types, people who look out for number one and could care less about anyone else. Their behavior in the game makes sense, then; each character is only concerned with saving their own hide, and most of the group die as a result. It also informs a set piece in which Xavier throws Amanda into a pit full of hypodermic needles, a scene that makes me squirm every time I watch it.

Detective Matthews fails his test as well, and he does it by being himself: an old-school hard ass who cares nothing for finesse or patience, and this proves to be his undoing. When talking with Jigsaw fails to bring him any closer to finding his son, Matthews beats Jigsaw savagely and forces him to lead him to where Matthews' son is being held. Jigsaw complies, and leads Matthews to the house, but this turns out to be a trap, and Detective Matthews ends this chapter locked in a very familiar bathroom, where the final surprises of this movie play out.

Saw II is like a dumbed-down version of the previous chapter, so much so that you could be forgiven for thinking that this second film is a reboot, and the first film was being all but forgotten. Believe me when I say, it isn't. While not nearly as cerebral as it's predecessor, Saw II hasn't forgotten where it came from, and demonstrates this with an ending surprise that honestly confused me the first few times I saw it, but it makes sense if you remember something you should have learned from the first movie: the Saw series makes heavy use of flashbacks. Also, several of the characters introduced in this film will be seen again in later chapters, still with significant roles to play. This is where the interconnected narrative that binds the Saw serial really begins to take shape.

Apart from the weak first impression made by many of the characters, my biggest problem with this chapter comes from a minor plot point that is mentioned shortly after the police arrive at Jigsaw's workshop. Next to the monitors showing Daniel Matthews and the rest of the group in their undisclosed location, the cops find a timer counting down. Detective Kerry orders that the bomb squad be called in, but the bomb squad never arrives, and the clock is never mentioned by the characters ever again, though as you might imagine, it has bearing on the story. This might be a problem with the unrated version of the film that I watched for this review, but it is a bit of a plot hole.

Saw III is perhaps the closest the series ever comes to recapturing the magic of the first film. Its plot is pivotal in the course of the greater story because so many significant events happen here. The extent of Amanda's involvement in what has come before is revealed. The foundation of the story arc that will carry us through the remaining four chapters is begun here. Every long narrative comes to a point where everything changes, and for Saw, this is it, and the beauty of it is that so much of that change is delivered subtly and without fanfare.

This is also when the series begins to expect you to have kept up with the story thus far. The film opens at the ending of Saw II, with Detective Matthews trapped in that very familiar bathroom, and desperate to find his kidnapped son. We learn some details of Matthews' fate; he does manage to escape, though whether his solution is any better than Doctor Gordon's is debatable. After that, though, we will learn little. Also, this movie has the briefest appearance by the police of the entire series. They show up just long enough for us to know they're aware of Matthews' disappearance, and investigate the aftermath of a new game with some very suspicious details. This is followed by a second, equally suspicious game, and then it's on to the main plot.

John Kramer, aka Jigsaw, is dying. This is not surprising; the series has made it clear from the beginning that he has an inoperable brain tumor, and he was in sad shape even then. On his instructions, Amanda kidnaps Doctor Lynn Denlon (Bahar Soomekh) and forces her to do everything she can to keep Jigsaw alive. In keeping with the established formula, this is part of another game, the full details of which will be revealed in time. In the meantime, a separate game is in progress.

Once again, a deeply troubled individual awakens to find themselves in Jigsaw World, and learns they must face a series of tests to earn their freedom, but the similarity to previous games gets sparse after that. Three years ago, Jeff (Angus Macfadyen) lost his young son to the tragedy of a traffic accident, and the loss destroyed his whole world. Now a broken shell of his former self, Jeff fantasizes of taking revenge on the people he sees as responsible for that loss. And that is the basis for his test. Instead of his own life being on the line, Jeff is given the opportunity to save the lives of three people who played key roles in that tragic event. First is a woman named Danica, who was the only witness to the accident and fled the scene. Next is the judge who gave Jeff's son's killer a sentence that Jeff believes was too lenient. And finally, the killer himself.

Audience members like to put themselves in the position of the main character in a movie, and part of what makes Jeff's test so powerful is that is plays to that tendency. We're each the hero of our own story, it's said, and so we may like to tell ourselves that no matter how badly a person may have wronged us, we would be able to put our feelings aside and help them if the situation was sufficiently dire. Jeff's test is a challenge to such self-aggrandizing thoughts. "You think you could be the bigger man if you had to?" it asks. "Then prove it." I for one am glad I'm not actually in Jeff's position, because I don't know if I could.

The other thing that makes this game special is that Jeff himself risks comparatively very little, though he does literally dodge a bullet at one point. The purpose of this game is not to test whether or not Jeff wants to live; indeed, a man in Jeff's state might jump at the chance to meet his own death, if only to be free of his torment. Instead, it's Jeff's humanity that's on trial. For three years Jeff has dreamed of nothing but revenge, an eye for an eye. Now he is challenged to put that aside and forgive the people he's hated for so long. Jeff may not bleed for his salvation the way other Test Subjects have or will, but he suffers all the same. And, to his credit, he doesn't completely fail. But as before, the games in progress in this chapter are connected; good decisions are outweighed by bad, and failure by one again means failure for all.

Saw III is, I think, where the series begins to confuse a lot of people, and consequently causes them to lose interest. As I've said before, the Saw movies expect the viewer to pay attention, and this one is the strictest so far. Case in point: in each of the recorded messages Jeff finds, Jigsaw urges him onward by promising that, at the end, Jeff will face the man responsible for the loss of his child. All the previous times I watched this movie, I thought Jigsaw was talking about Jeff's son, as though Jigsaw somehow set in motion the chain of events that led to the boy being run down, a long-game plan that beggars belief even by Jigsaw's standards. But he isn't; Jigsaw is talking about Jeff's daughter, who has also been kidnapped, and doesn't have long to live (though she will be saved in the next installment). This revelation comes as the final blow following the conclusion of the film's events, and it hits hard because Jeff, and we, had forgotten all about her, and we don't learn she's in peril until it's too late.

Also, I gotta give credit to the writers for allowing their big bad to die in this chapter. Yes, Jigsaw was a terminal cancer patient so it was only a matter of time, and to be fair, it isn't the cancer that kills him. Still, it must have been tempting to allow him to go on hovering in the shadows, orchestrating future games in perpetuity. But this would have required Jigsaw to either be miraculously cured, a medical improbability, or` a tiresome cycle of Jigsaw always being close to death, only to be saved at the last minute. Allowing the character to die puts an end to that plot thread, and besides, just because Jigsaw is dead doesn't mean his influence is at an end. Also, yes, Jigsaw will appear in the ensuing chapters, but again: those are called "flashbacks", children. Rest assured that Jigsaw is dead. He has ceased to be. He is, if you will, an ex-Jigsaw.

From here on, the story will shift to Jigsaw's legacy as the mystery that is the core of this series continues to play out. Join us again for part three of our series next week, when we'll review the next two films in the series.

Saw II is rated R for grisly violence and gore, terror, language and drug content.
Saw III is rated R for strong grisly violence and gore, sequences of terror and torture, nudity and language.

Robert's Scores:
Saw II: 7 / 10
Saw III: 8 / 10

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