Director: The Spierig Brothers
Writer: Josh Stolberg, Peter Goldfinger
Producer: Oren Koules, Mark Burg, Gregg Hoffman
Stars: Matt Passmore, Callum Keith Rennie, Cle Bennett, Hannah Emily Anderson, Laura Vandervoort, Mandela Van Peebles, Paul Braunstein, Brittany Allen, Josiah Black, Tobin Bell
New victims found murdered by deadly traps compel police to investigate the possibility that John Kramer is still alive.
More and more as far as mainstream horror goes, I often wonder how much my “what is everyone complaining about?” perspective might be prejudiced by foreknowledge of negative critical consensus. I saw “The Bye Bye Man” (review here) well after it left first-run theaters, leaving overwhelmingly unimpressed audiences in its wake. Had I not seen the film after the fact under a presumption it sucked, would my “it’s not as bad as everyone says” opinion have joined the collective chorus of boos instead?
Similar circumstances applied to “Rings” (review here). The only things lower than that movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score and box office returns were my expectations. Maybe if I had the same blank slate as its early detractors, I wouldn’t have backhandedly defended the film as “better than I’d been led to believe.”
I find myself in this position once again with “Jigsaw.” A critic I follow who is also a noted “Saw” fan described this seventh sequel as “a crushing disappointment.” One of the better-known horror sites labeled it “the worst installment in the ‘Saw’ franchise.” Another genre journalist simplified his sentiment with the word “boring.”
Additional rumors said established mythology mostly went out the window to keep the plot accessible for newcomers. All of this conditioned me for a dumbed-down reboot with nowhere near the same bite as its predecessors. Instead, I came out the other side questioning why many “Saw” fans seemingly have such problems with the movie. Considering how little is left for the current continuity to tap (surviving characters from the previous seven installments notwithstanding), “Jigsaw” makes for a surprisingly solid stab at rejuvenating a long-toothed property whose corpse was as cold as John Kramer’s.
The underlying premise of “Jigsaw” suggests John Kramer’s corpse might not be cold after all. Even if you’ve never seen a “Saw” film before, all anyone needs to know is that Kramer, aka ‘Jigsaw,’ was a devious serial killer who forced victims to face supposed sins via elaborate traps. Simple enough.
When a police shootout with a confused criminal triggers a new string of deaths, two detectives and two forensic analysts end up investigating what appears to be a crop of copycat crimes. The more clues they uncover, the more it appears John Kramer, despite being dead, might be pulling the strings. While authorities race to confirm the killer’s identity, five victims hiding horrible secrets fight to escape a barn full of traps designed to punish them in gruesome ways. Also simple enough.
Perhaps that simplicity flusters franchise faithful. Familiar faces like Jigsaw’s wife Jill Tuck, Detective Hoffman, or Shawnee Smith’s Amanda are nowhere to be found. I contend that’s a smart move. Writers Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger don’t restart the series’ fiction so much as splinter in an offshoot direction. As the eighth entry in John Kramer’s improbably long saga, “Jigsaw” avoids worming its way through continuity that, frankly, grew too convoluted to have any remote relation to reality anyway.
Stripping this “Saw” down to essentials doesn’t deprive the film of a trademark twist. However, this one works a little differently than others. Specifically, the final curtain pull completely cheats, revealing that the story’s structure is designed not with narrative in mind, but with an objective to unfairly fool the audience.
I don’t have a problem with this, although I understand how some might out of principle. It doesn’t grate much because directors Peter and Michael Spierig, who previously wowed with their terrific time travel thriller “Predestination” (review here), entertainingly distract with a great deal of showmanship. Editor Kevin Greutert, who has been with “Saw” since the beginning, proves how well he has a handle on the series’ tempo with perhaps his sharpest work to date. With thanks to fluid camerawork too, “Jigsaw” moves swiftly, and that tightness truly holds tone together.
Gore somewhat steps out of the spotlight on this spin. The Spierigs instead use traps to craft moments of “Final Destination”-like tension that are less reliant on shocking pops of blood. Suspense comes from the anticipatory setup rather than the torturous result.
Characters can be better identified by whom they look like as opposed to describing distinct personalities. Mandela Van Peebles is instantly recognizable as his father’s son before even knowing his last name. Paul Braunstein plays a Poor Man’s Paul Giamatti. Brittany Allen practically recreates her panicky part from “It Stains the Sands Red” (review here). They certainly aren’t the best-fleshed crop of Jigsaw targets, but they are moderately more memorable than most.
Disappointment from “Saw” fans probably relates to unfulfilled desires for resolving where things were when Dr. Gordon slammed the door at the end of “Saw 3D.” Speaking as someone who has seen every “Saw” film and considers the first to be one of the most significant horror movies of the 21st century, I prefer the approach taken here. Even if execution comes off as lackluster in places, the spirit of “Saw” remains and the Spierigs’ style adds a much-needed feeling of freshness.
I will say though, the creators have finally squeezed every last drop of blood from this vein of Jigsaw’s mythology. I’ll defend the path taken to trick viewers this time as a creative necessity, given how much fiction has been exhausted after eight films. But series stewards can’t go to this well again. That leaves producers out of reasonable options for a ninth movie, unless they truly do go a reboot route, or find another unique way to bring Jigsaw back from the dead.
Review Score: 65