Directed By: The Spierig Brothers
Release Date: October 27, 2017
Starring: Tobin Bell, Callum Keith Rennie, Matt Passmore, Laura Vandervoort
Seven years after the Saw franchise seemingly ended with its seventh entry - dubbed at the time as The Final Chapter, but now just referred to as Saw 3D - the successful series is finally back for another go-round with Jigsaw, an eighth installment designed from the ground up as a way to revitalize Saw in a much-changed horror landscape. Though some familiar names return to take part behind the scenes in this film, like series composer Charlie Clouser and editor Kevin Greutert, who also directed both Saw VI and Saw 3D, the Saw franchise is, essentially, under new creative management with Jigsaw thanks to a script from Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger (Piranha 3D) and the direction of The Spierig Brothers (Daybreakers).
Rather than pick up directly from where Saw 3D left off, Jigsaw forges its own path, setting up a new mystery set ten years after the events of Saw III, which featured the death of the series' main character, John "Jigsaw" Kramer. Bodies have begun turning up throughout the city fitting the late serial killer's MO, baffling police, whose theories of a copycat are put into question when fresh DNA evidence links the victims directly to the late Kramer. While they work to solve the case, and as the news runs with the idea that Kramer may actually still be alive, five people find themselves waking up in a secluded barn as part of a game designed to force them to face the sins of their past.
Now, before I start to get any further into this, I have to acknowledge that I have a soft spot for the Saw franchise. With no expectations or knowledge about Saw or Saw II, I saw the two films back to back for the first time back in 2006, their twists alone enough to get me excited to see Saw III, which was coming out several months later. After that, I saw every Saw film at a midnight showing with friends, each new installment being greeted with legitimate excitement. The franchise has always had a reputation for its gore and violence, which is regrettable considering the early films don't indulge too much in it, but that's not what we (or I) ever looked forward to with the series. Unlike many other long-running horror series, Saw has an incredibly tight continuity, with minor characters from one film turning up in another down the line for cameos or even elevated roles and plot threads and mysteries weaving their way through the entire series. Each new film tended to illuminate past films, the series constantly recontextualizing its own legacy in a way that was, quite simply, fun to see play out year to year.
That said, that doesn't mean that I think that Saw as a franchise is a horror masterpiece, but few, if any, iconic franchises as a whole, whether it's Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street, are. Without a doubt, Saw's best entries are its first three films, and each sequel after that had to deal with the consequences of the fact that the series' main character had died at the end of Saw III. Sometimes it worked, like Saw IV and VI, and others times it didn't, like the relatively boring Saw V or the truly disappointing Saw 3D. It's a series of highs and lows, like any franchise, but I enjoyed its original run for what it was, each film serving as a seasonal piece of a bigger puzzle, even if I can acknowledge that it's not high art.
By the end of Saw 3D, the franchise had woven itself a pretty big tapestry in which numerous characters, events, and story arcs had been threaded, and were someone to try and jump into, say, Saw VI or Saw 3D without having seen the films leading up to them, it'd be easy to see how they could be completely lost as to who is who and what's going on. As I mentioned, Jigsaw is very much an attempt to resurrect the series for a newer audience, and as such, it doesn't bother trying to dive back into its own complicated legacy, welcoming newcomers who need to only know two simple things: The fundamental ideology of Jigsaw and the fact that he died in Saw III.
Minor references are made to the series, including the appearance of several familiar traps and a name drop of Kramer's wife, Jill Tuck, but that's about it. For diehard fans of the franchise looking for resolution to some of the plot threads Saw 3D left open, like what Cary Elwes' Dr. Gordon and the seeming cult of Jigsaw went on to do or whether Costa Mandylor's villainous Detective Hoffman ever escaped the series' iconic bathroom, Jigsaw is going to be a disappointment, even if its decision to just sidestep all of it makes sense in order to serve as a new entry point to the series. In doing its best to just sweep away the events of all the sequels, it does raise many, many questions, questions which will likely go unanswered should Jigsaw get the sequel it so clearly is demanding, but as an entity designed to essentially standalone, the film does effectively serve its purpose.
Even aesthetically, Jigsaw takes strides to differentiate itself from the initial run. James Wan's original film and, in particular, Darren Lynn Bousman's work on the second, third, and fourth films set a certain style the franchise adhered to through Saw 3D full of rapid-fire editing and dark lighting. Sets, regardless of whether they were a police station or a hospital or a sewer or an abandoned warehouse, were always coated in a thick, sometimes intangible layer of grime, as though the world of Saw itself was sick and dying, diseased and corrupted. It's a world no one would want to live in, but that style and appearance was what gave Saw its identity, even though all these years later, it helped date it as well, particularly the music video-esque editing. All that is gone for Jigsaw, which feels much more modern and clean, with little, if any, of the editing techniques and camerawork that defined the original run being deployed, representative of the idea that the series is forging itself a new path.
It also, surprisingly enough, moves away from the types of seemingly-inescapable traps that turned up in the latter sequels and back towards the idea that going back to basics is better. The group in the barn has to work together to survive, obviously, but the situations they're put into never seem designed to outright screw them over. When they take a beat to think or do the right thing, they win; when they cheat or let their impatience and selfishness get the best of them, they lose. And even when they screw up, which, in typical Saw fashion, happens, it never lingers too long on the gory consequences, the sole exception being the outcome of a laser cutter device being fitted around someone's neck late in the film that serves as a money shot-type moment people won't soon forget. In essence, the barn game in Jigsaw actually feels fair and conquerable compared to, say, the games designed by Amanda and Hoffman in some of the other sequels that were designed only to screw people over, warping Jigsaw's actual ideology.
And, of course, there's a twist, because every Saw film - except, arguably, V - has one, and it's the one thing that, wherever this series goes next, will never change. As I mentioned earlier, the plot revolves around the idea of whether John Kramer is truly alive or not or whether a copycat has surfaced to honor his legacy, and the twist at the heart of Jigsaw is going to be a real love it or hate it moment for a lot of people. Without spoiling it, the twist is nothing really new for the series, both utilizing a misdirection in regards to timelines and a big character reveal, and many older fans will likely fall in the latter category of hating it or, at the least, being ambivalent towards it due to that fact and the issues it raises with the timeline of the past films, though casual fans and newcomers will likely never see it coming and be genuinely surprised. Like every Saw film, it's a twist that simply just needs to be experienced unsullied ahead of time.
For me, the twist had to be the moment Jigsaw justified its existence, and I'm not entirely sure it did. The film introduces a number of suspects throughout the film, including Callum Keith Rennie's Detective Halloran, Matt Passmore's forensic pathologist Logan Nelson, and Hannah Emily Anderson's Eleanor, Logan's assistant, and toys with the idea that maybe, just maybe, Kramer did find a way to fake his death, or that he has a brother, but the big reveal about what's going on and who is behind it all was a bit underwhelming, proving that this series is nothing without Tobin Bell. Bell does, unsurprisingly, show up in the film, instantly stealing the spotlight when he does. In fact, the audience I was with applauded when he came on screen, which shows how deeply people link this franchise to him, but it's inevitable that if Saw wants to keep going, it'll have to move beyond him. It's an issue that the sequels following Saw III dealt with via flashbacks, but there's only so much that can be shown and said that hasn't been already, and further films have a real challenge ahead of them whether they want to keep folding in on themselves to include him or risk forging ahead without him and failing to make up for his absence by delivering something worthwhile.
In the context of the franchise it's a part of, Jigsaw never really reaches the heights of the first three films, but also never sinks to the depths where Saw V and 3D reside. If it doesn't get a sequel, then it'll be a curious, relatively unnecessary outlier in the franchise as a whole thanks to how disconnected it is, which means its longetivity rests completely on whether or not it has successfully paved the way for the series' new direction, something we won't know until a studio announcement that a sequel is on the way. As it stands, Jigsaw is simply an average Saw film, entertaining for what it is but nothing worth getting too excited over, even if it's great seeing Tobin Bell back in his iconic role, however brief it is.
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