Saturday, November 27, 2010

Saw IV, V and VI: Political Torture and The Saw Legacy

In my previous look at the Saw phenomenon - covering the first three films - I mentioned a personal fascination with film series' that go long, and the evolution that begins to occur within. I mused about some of the possibilities of how the Saw series might progress, possibly through introducing more humor (which may be welcome considering how deadly serious the series had been), or perhaps introducing a note of meta-commentary as a way of examining the omnipresence of the series as a whole. While the first point certainly never revealed itself - the only humor ever present is the sheer disbelief at the complexity of some of the murder devices - there is a touch of the second point in the series' 6th installment, which introduces a few "ripped from the headlines" elements regarding insurance companies and housing loan scams that were particularly topical at the time the film was made.

One element of the series that had already started to develop in the first three films, and certainly continued throughout the next three, was the progression of Jigsaw/John Kramer as a sort of sympathetic anti-hero. While his methods are obviously brutal, since the death of character in Saw III the films have begun filling in his back-story and revealing the demented, but concrete, method behind his madness. This softening - if you can call it that - is obviously intentional, and shows a recognition that Kramer (and Tobin Bell's continually terrific performance) are what the fans come to see. It also reflects a similar evolution to that which occurred in the Friday the 13th series, where many of the victims were introduced as despicable and unlikeable characters, so the crowd would get more satisfaction from their eventual gory deaths. Slasher films, somewhat incongruously, are often very puritanical, with excessive sexuality and drug use being punished by death. The crimes of the victims in the Saw series tend to be a little more complicated, but the idea has begun to be the same - while we develop an emotional connection, we're always at a distance thanks to their eventually revealed despicable behavior.

However, the common criticism involving the near comical levels of complexity regarding the death devices in the series has been replaced with the disbelief at the sheer level of back-story that has been able to be filled in. While the creators have been smart to - even peripherally - keep Jigsaw at the forefront of the films, it seems that there would have to be limits to what audiences would accept as elements that can be continually filled in. The web of events being weaved remains interesting, and I respect the filmmakers for taking small details from previous films and tying them into the greater picture, but by the end of this second trilogy of films it seems we've nearly reached the limit of this sort of retroactive

I will admit that the details of the individual films tend to run together in Saw IV, V and VI, as the muddle of flashbacks and "shock" reveals begin to take their toll. It also seems that we've passed the point of no return regarding the level of violence in these films - as the comparative restraint of the first two films has given way to an expectation of bloodshed that actually serves to reduce much of the film's suspense. If there's a device that is meant to mutilate someone, the filmmakers will inevitably be showing you the evisceration in grand detail - at least in some capacity. Anyone who has watched up to this point already realizes that nobody escapes unscathed, which is just how the audiences seem to like it.

Saw IV (2007) finds the series at a crossroads, though also finds the return of many of the players from the previous film - including director Darren Lynn Bousman (who helmed the previous two installments). The film's central and most interesting character is now dead, and since the film doesn't trade on supernatural elements, we're shown John Kramer's autopsy in revolting (though, I have to admit, fascinating) detail. However, Kramer/Jigsaw was plenty busy before his death recording seemingly dozens of tapes to make sure everyone tangentially related to his life would be affected in some way. Much of the running time is devoted to Lieutenant Rigg (Lyriq Bent), who - after finding the body of Detective Kerry from the previous film - finds himself obsessed with finding Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg's character from the previous two films) to the point where he's sent home to recuperate mentally. Jigsaw - however - has taken this opportunity to run the officer through a series of different tests meant to challenge his obsessive behavior.

We're also introduced to FBI agents Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson) and Lindsey Perez (Athena Karkanis), who are diligently searching for clues regarding the fate of Jigsaw, while also attempting to track down the whereabouts of Riggs. They are assisted by Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), who soon finds himself part of one of Jigsaw's trademark devices - also involving Matthews.

Got all that? The cast of characters has started to pile up - and I didn't even mention the increased presence of Kramer's wife Jill Tuck or the appearance of previous protagonist Jeff Denlon - but the real fascination here comes from the increased number of flashbacks to Kramer's pre-Jigsaw life. I usually get annoyed by such attempts at humanization, but Bell's performance is so subdued and strong that he's able to make these moments - involving his relationship with Jill and her eventual miscarriage - really carry some weight. Rigg's journey is less interesting, and serves mostly as a catalyst for the film's trademark "games" - which seem a little less imaginative than usual. I found the film's ending to be rather anticlimactic, though it seems to represent a rather obvious (and necessary) changing of the guard concerning the direction of the series. The final reveal - another series trademark - is quite effective, and sets the next film up nicely.

Saw V (2008) marks a minor change in direction for the series, as we now have a new antagonist who has shown to have existed in the background of all of the previous films. We also have a terrific beginning which shows Agent Strahm managing to save his own life by giving himself a tracheotomy with a pen (after finding himself trapped in what appeared to be Radiohead's "No Surprises" video). Unfortunately, the rest of the film isn't nearly as interesting, despite a new director (Saw series production designer David Hackel) and some memorably gory moments (particularly the Pit and the Pendulum-inspired pre-credits sequence).

Once again the flashbacks tend to be the most interesting part, as we see the apprentice's involvement in some of the more memorable moments of the previous films, as well as the beginnings of his relationship with the Jigsaw character. The big murder set pieces come from a central game featuring five new victims whose selfishness has indirectly led to the deaths of eight people. I mentioned in the previous article about the film's central premise bringing to mind the Vincenzo Natali's Cube, and the dynamic of that film is particularly evident in the series of tests experienced by the characters here. However, they are a prime example of the sort of barely sympathetic characters that the series now specializes in as cannon fodder for the distinctive traps.

The acting in the film is solid across the board - only the first Saw film has particularly egregious examples of bad performances - though I found myself totally unable to care about the Peter Strahm character and part of that is due to the hard-nosed performance of Scott Patterson. We discover later that Strahm is being set up as a possible suspect for the post-Jigsaw murders, but while this may explain why they don't properly develop his character it doesn't make for very interesting viewing. We also get one of the least interesting climaxes of the series, making this likely the weakest entry as a whole in the series up to this point.

Saw VI (2009) somewhat surprisingly proved to be a return to form thanks to a combination of factors, not the least of which was the decision to embrace the thematic elements that supporters of modern splatter had always suggested were evident - the reflection of real world concerns. While I wrote in the previous article about the dubious suggestion that the acceptance of real world torture in times of war was a motivating influence on the development of the "torture porn" genre, the choice to incorporate references to the mortgage crisis in the guise of the predatory lenders in the pre-credit sequence and the much more overt references to the loathsome practices of Insurance companies as related to the recent American health care debate give the film - which has a comparatively short production schedule - a real sense of timeliness.

It also serves to continue the trend of the last few films of softening the impact and tension of the various trials and games being presented by having those being tested be quite unsympathetic. With most of the supporting cast having been dispatched, we're left with a much more focused plot of watching Jigsaw's apprentice slowly get revealed thanks to some past sloppiness, as well as a series of brutal games being played by health insurance executive William Easton (Peter Outerbridge) - who became a target of Jigsaw after earlier turning down John Kramer's attempts to get experimental treatment for his cancer. There are some fairly big reveals throughout, and I was impressed by the complicated ending which serves to quite effectively bring the numerous disparate threads together.

Editor for all of the previous films in the series, director Kevin Greutert doesn't provide the flashy transitions of Darren Lynn Bousman, but does a good job of tying this stage of the storyline together, while leaving a few strands for whoever is called on to follow (which ended up being himself, since he's also the director of 2010's Saw 3D). While I mentioned that Easton's character made his eventual fate less than distressing due to his dubious morality, Outerbridge does a wonderful job of balancing his expected smarm and smugness (in the flashbacks) with his obvious desperation once trapped. Tobin Bell gets to show off a bit more emotion as well in his few scenes, though the series as a whole is starting to stagger with the weight of the new back-story being piled upon it.

Even now going into the seventh and (not likely) final film in the series, I can certainly appreciate the appeal of Jigsaw as a villain - who holds quite strongly to a particular personal moral code, despite putting the characters in these films through absolute agony. He quite quickly replaced the various antagonists as the heart and soul of this series, but by killing him off in the third film the filmmakers have presented themselves with quite a quandary - keep moving deeper into a back-story that is already starting to get ridiculous, or try and present a new set of players? While some of the creative forces in this series have bent the formula slightly, there must be a very real concern about tipping the apple-cart, though the success of the most recent film does show that this series still has potential - or at least there's still an audience for bleak and cynical bloodshed.

I plan on completing my view of this series with a final look at the most recent and possible final entry in the series, in which perhaps the creators will answer some of these concerns.


J.T. said...

Man, this is a brilliant fucking series of articles.

Doug Tilley said...

I really appreciate that. I just can't help but get my back up when I hear a film be as roundly dismissed - and with such vitriol - as these films have been, it started to peak my curiosity. Frankly, this series has - at this point - become one of the most successful (financially) in the history of film, and has obviously made a huge impact on the audience that craves new entries. To be so dismissive is simply short-sighted, and I wanted to - even in my own rambling way - try and nail down what the appeal could possibly be.
I discovered that some of the criticisms are valid - there is plenty of gore for gore's sake. Many of the characters are unlikable. But it also has developed a strong mythology, and contains the sort of continuity (only possible because of the constant releasing of sequels) that keeps people returning. If anything, I see it as taking on some of the qualities of serialized television - which is also something I expect to see in further Paranormal Activity sequels.

J.T. said...

I personally think that the strongest part of the Saw equation was the thing that led to the downfall of the franchise.

Killing off Jigsaw was a really brave move but the franchise really failed when it came to doing what it needed to do in order to secure longevity for the Saw series.

It never fully passed Jigsaw's torch to someone else.

Tobin Bell's Jigsaw was far too entrenched in the film's mythology for Saw's own good. The flashbacks added much needed depth to the mythology, but the middle Saw films were still saddled with two of the most unlikeable vying to inherit Jigsaw's legacy.

To put it bluntly, Amanda and Hoffman were complete assholes.

By the time that SAW3D "got it rite" so to speak and passed the torch along to a worthy standard bearer (I don't wanna give away the payoff if you haven't endured... er... seen it yet...), it was time to put the last nail in Jigsaw's coffin.

The river of blood had run its course.

Ultimately, the latter films could not keep up with the ambitions of the first one and the franchise suffered for it... along with the rest of us. :)

Too bad, really.