Written by: Pete Goldfinger, Josh Stolberg
Directed by: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
Starring: Matt Passmore, Callum Keith Rennie, and Tobin Bell
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"I speak for the dead."
Long-awaited franchise revivals come with equal amounts of excitement and angst: it’s always nice to have this familiar names and faces return, but, what if, you know, they totally screw it up? Such conflicting emotions are especially high with Jigsaw, the revival of the long-running Saw franchise, which saw its “final chapter” unravel seven years ago with an absurd conclusion to an increasingly convoluted mythos. However, as silly as that entry was, it’s hard to say this franchise hasn’t been in the hands of a group that actually cares. Even when James Wan and Leigh Whannell departed after Saw III, they handed off the reins to a creative team that more or less held in place during the course of the next four films, ensuring some level of actual oversight.
And say what you want about those later sequels, that vision mostly bore out through a sustained plotline that honored what came before it while spinning its own maintained continuity in the process. Quite frankly, there have been few horror franchises that bothered with such an intricately plotted approach, as most opt to have its icon simply terrorize new batches of victims without becoming too tangled up its own mythology.
So you can see why Jigsaw might inspire some trepidation: just what will this franchise look like when it’s in the hands of a (mostly) new creative team? It’s easy to imagine a nightmare scenario where a desperate studio looked towards a familiar brand for a quick, cheap hit, caring little about the final outcome, effectively sullying what still stands as one of the stronger horror franchises in recent memory. Thankfully, though, that isn’t the case with Jigsaw: while this resurrection can hardly be considered a game-changer for this sort of thing, this is an admirably respectful sequel that justifies itself well enough—even if it doesn’t exactly reinvigorate or carve a bold new path for the franchise as a whole.
Set some nebulous time after the events of The Final Chapter, about a decade after John Kramer’s (Tobin Bell) death in the third film, Jigsaw opens with criminal Edgar Munsen (Josiah Black) on the run from authorities. During their eventual showdown, he implores the cops—specifically detective Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie)—to allow him to begin a “game” of some sort that he must trigger with a remote device in his hand. As Edgar presses the button, the cops unload a hail of gunfire that leaves him hospitalized in a coma, rendering him useless to the cops seeking information. Meanwhile, on a remote farm, Edgar’s device has triggered the start of a demented game that eerily resembles the sort that Jigsaw himself once employed to carry out his twisted sense of blood-soaked morality. Here, a quintet of strangers—each of them hoarding some awful secret about themselves—must cooperate to survive as authorities attempt to discover if they’re dealing with the work of a copycat or the impossibly resurrected Jigsaw himself.
Despite the long layoff, Jigsaw does arrive with some semblance of optimism, as Lionsgate went out and tapped The Spierig Brothers, whose mind-bending Predestination made them an obvious fit for a franchise that has often relied on similar twists and turns. In fact, it’s impressive how that aspect eventually came to define Saw’s reputation, even more so than the stomach-churning gore that initially put it on the radar. If there’s one thing the Spierigs absolutely get, it’s this, since Jigsaw is much more preoccupied with stringing viewers along an intriguing mystery than it is grossing them out. Not that it exactly skimps on the gore, mind you—it’s just that it’s not nearly the focus it was in, say, The Final Chapter.
It’s the right decision, not only because it honors the franchise’s general vibe but also because it makes for a genuinely compelling follow-up. In the franchise tradition, the Spierigs have crafted a puzzle box of sorts, one that thrives on multiple points of intrigue, chief among them the identity of this latest perpetrator. Is this the work of a simple copycat? Another, heretofore unknown Jigsaw apprentice? Or has Jigsaw somehow returned from the grave, however ridiculous that might be, especially given the very thorough autopsy glimpsed at throughout the fourth film? The Spierigs deploy some old tricks in sorting these questions out, most of which will be quite familiar to Saw fans, so much so that it’s actually quite easy to snuff out at least one of the most pressing questions at hand (it helps that some especially portentous dialogue sets up one predictable turn of events, granted).
But it does at least keep even a seasoned audience on its toes when it comes to unraveling its central mystery concerning the game-maker’s identity. Multiple red herrings and suspects are introduced among the new set of characters here, as Detective Halloran is joined by fellow detective Keith Hunt (Cle Bennett), forensic pathologist Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore), and his assistant Eleanor Bonneville (Hannah Emily Anderson). Each can be reasonably considered a suspect at various points, as the script provides plenty of clues and misdirection for the audience to indulge. Most interesting (and most suspect) here is Eleanor, who is revealed to harbor a fascination with Jigsaw’s work, so much so that she moonlights as an artist specializing in reproducing the madman’s various traps. A tour through her hidden studio doubles as a twisted walk through memory lane, allowing nostalgic viewers to take in one more glimpse of Jigsaw’s signature instruments of torture and mayhem.
His (or whoever is resuming his work) newest round of carnage is also impressive enough, though the newest batch of victims is disposable as ever. With so much time being split between the procedural aspect and the new game, the latter winds up feeling a bit underdeveloped: at best, each potential victim sports a lip-service backstory, but Jigsaw falls short of the franchise’s high water marks with respect to character development (the first 3 films, plus the underrated Part VI). The traps, at least, do retain that deviously playful quality that invites a morbid curiosity about just how awfully these folks will be dispatched, and the Spierigs (and screenwriting duo Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger) wring them for their suspenseful potential. As has become custom for this multi-player traps, each victim is truly responsible for the others, particularly during a show-stopping sequence involving a trapped foot (speaking of customary) and a torrential downpour of grains and sharp objects.
The Spierigs do weirdly pull back from reveling in the gory payoffs here, perhaps in an attempt to keep Jigsaw from becoming an empty splatter show. Much of the gorier bits are reserved for the aftermath, when these victims’ mangled corpses appear in public areas, much to the dismay (and extreme) frustration of the police. None of this is to say that Jigsaw is exactly toned down—there’s plenty of melted flesh, severed limbs, and faces pulverized beyond recognition; it’s just that it feels dialed down, especially when compared to the over-the-top, splattery lunacy of The Final Chapter, a film that abandoned any and all pretense the series might have still had at that point. As much as I didn’t mind that film, it’s still fair to say Jigsaw is a course correction, especially in terms of tone: where the previous film bordered on downright flippancy, this one at least tries to remain somewhat grounded.
Emphasis on “somewhat,” of course, since even the most ardent Saw fans (myself included) have to admit this premise has always required viewers to suspend their disbelief (if not dismiss it altogether). Jigsaw is ultimately no different when it begins to intertwine its various threads together, essentially playing a demented game of Twister in the process of connecting each dot. It’s satisfying enough, even if it’s not a complete and utter mind-bender. Given this franchise has set such a high bar in this respect, that’s hardly a surprise, anyway; if anything, it’s not trying too hard to trick viewers, allowing it to retain some degree of plausibility when the signature (and obligatory) “Hello Zepp” cue returns, once again ushering the audience to a familiar ending that reconfigures previous dialogue and interactions.
As weird as it sounds considering the franchise at hand, I couldn’t help but smile during this climax: part of it was surely borne out of nostalgia, but some of it owed to the growing realization that the Spierigs by and large nailed it here. Not only is Saw back, it’s been resurrected with some degree of care and respect for the franchise legacy. While it’s not nearly as continuity-heavy as its predecessors (Eleanor’s studio and a notable name drop provide the only real callbacks), Jigsaw at least attempts to recapture the basic essence of the early films: it’s driven by an alluring mystery, has its eye trained just enough on the mythos, delivers some nail-biting, stomach-churning trap sequences, and even carves out some screen-time for Tobin Bell to remind us how important his presence is. For better and for worse, it’s very much a Saw movie, albeit one that doesn’t indulge too excessively in any direction.
Maybe that makes it a “safe” return for a franchise that needed some time to cool off. Nobody is going to consider Jigsaw to be a daring entry that opens the door for some bold new direction; in many ways, it’s very much more of the same once it reveals its final, quite familiar hand. I can’t help but think this feels like a glimpse into an alternate universe where the Saw films just kept cycling through Kramer’s apprentices instead of just settling on following Detective Hoffman for four films (his fate is left up in the air here, in case anyone was wondering for a direct follow-up to The Final Chapter). Compared to those films—which were increasingly insular, mythology-heavy affairs—Jigsaw is a lean, efficient continuation that only requires the vaguest knowledge of who John Kramer is, so it hits the ground running (quite literally, given the foot chase that opens the film).
The Spierigs also provide the first glimpse of what Saw can look like in the hands of outsiders, as they do their best to imprint their own sensibilities onto the franchise boilerplate. Their aesthetic feels sleeker than the franchise’s signature gritty, grimy palette, and their vision trades out the usual smoky, industrial settings for a rural farmhouse situated in an otherwise idyllic autumn landscape. Save perhaps for opening scene in The Final Chapter, Jigsaw feels bigger than the previous, more intimate entries, as there are plenty of exterior locations to open up this universe a bit, injecting it with a bigger scope. By the end, though, it has some obvious obligations to the rapid fire editing and operatic displays (series editor Kevin Greutert returns alongside composer Charlie Clouser) expected out of a Saw film.
Again, that’s pretty much Jigsaw in a nutshell: it’s more or less exactly what you’d expect from the eighth Saw movie, so much so that it’s fair to question why they waited so long to unleash a movie that feels so safe. It’s hard to see this as a true spark to reignite the franchise, as it’s not like I’m suddenly clamoring to see more out of what’s revealed during the climax here. While it’s easy to see the franchise continuing on from this point, it would be retreading some pretty familiar ground in doing so—essentially, you’ll have new faces going through old motions, which would be fine. However, it’s hard to be wildly enthused at that prospect since Saw continually defied most franchise conventions throughout its original reign.
This has never been a franchise that’s been content to just stand pat and retrace its owns steps, so it’s a bit disconcerting to see it do so upon its grand return from a long absence. It almost feels like a new owner doing their best not to wreck their a vintage car: sure, everyone involved here is being careful not to guide Saw into a ditch, but they aren’t exactly eager to put too much stress on its engine and rev it up to full throttle, either.
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