The only franchise to emerge from the overhyped and still ill-understood "torture porn" moment at the opening half of the decade, Saw opened its sixth installment this weekend. And, as we have for the five pervious installments, trusty horror-wingman Dave and I made or way to Court Street for the ritual.
At this point, I'm not sure I look forward to the release of a new Saw flick. My motivations for going are somewhat murky, even to me. Dave and I both admit that there's a sense of challenge, as if to quit going before the filmmakers quit making them would be some sort of admission of defeat. Though we both understand that this is pretty absurd. Along side that "don't let them win" impulse, I do feel genuine affection for the series. But, honestly, it's kind of like the purposefully irregular visits one makes to the friend that used to be cool way back when but has long since turned into an embarrassment. You can't pretend that you've got no feelings for the schmuck, but you kind of dread the encounter. In that vein, I very much enjoyed the first couple of Saw flicks and, even after the quality of the films started to bottom out, I still found great joy in the Saw ritual of getting drinks, hanging with the Courtesans (who, in contrast to my increasing resignation, are the last practitioners of that energetic school of New York media criticism whose final great gasp was the Astor Place Riot), and discussing death traps over burgers later. That said, I'd be first to admit that, without that ritual framework, the movies since the third or fourth installment wouldn't have been worth seeing. (I assume this was part of the charm of the original slashers - though the fact that the latter flicks still have their fans who defend them on the grounds that they're quality works both confuses me and makes me wonder if we're still talking about the same phenomenon.)
So, you can imagine the shock last night when I walked out a Saw flick pleasantly surprised. Though I know this is weak praise for those who dismiss the series outright, Saw VI is the best installment in the series since the second flick back in '05.
The filmmakers announce their intention to give the increasingly sluggish series a shot in the arm with their opening trap (the pre-title sequence trap scene that is to Saw what the intro mini-adventure is to the Bond series): a savage and minimalist zero-sum game in which two crooked loan officers must compete to see who will trim off the most flesh from themselves before a timer runs down. In this half minute scene, we get a taste of everything the newest crew is bringing to the table. Gone is Jigsaw's tedious moralizing, replaced by a sort of dark avenging "you hurt people, now it is your time to hurt" motivation. He sinks into the background and, instead, we watch as the two players get more and more desperate and violent. This scene plays so hard and so fast (nearly real-time) and so brutal that it provoked appreciative golf claps from the notoriously finicky Courtesans.
For this sixth outing, the filmmakers work hard to re-ground the series in its primary dramatic focus - the fate of the people trapped in seemingly impossible dilemmas - and ruthlessly undertake the work of clearing away three film's worth of distracting and hopelessly tangled backstory. The filmmakers are extremely successful at the first task: Director Kevin Greutert and screenwriters Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton deliver the one of the leanest and most focused Saw films of the franchise. The business of the pulling the franchise out the the continuity k-hole it's been tumbling down since Saw III remains, when the credits role, an unfinished task; but given the scope of repairs that are called for, the progress they make in simplifying the baroque mythology of the Saw universe is praiseworthy.
As with most Saw flicks since the second film, Saw VI contains two related plots lines: one which focuses on an extended trap sequence and another which gets all ouroboros with the franchise's overly-elaborate continuity. Saw flicks are generally better when the former is given more screentime than the latter. Happily, VI has got the ratio right.
The majority of the flick focuses on the staff of the appeals review office of the Umbrella Health Insurance, the office responsible for scraping off desperate sick folks whose infirmities threaten the bottom line of Umbrella. The ten-person staff, from the sad sack janitor to the hungry khaki-clad strivers in the cubical pens, ends up in a series of traps, their fates decided by their sleazy "it's just business" salaryman boss, William. This plotline somewhat resembles the trial series that forms half of Saw III, though this plays considerably harsher. In III, the player - Jeff - had to repeatedly decide if he could forgive the people in the traps (he blamed them all for a miscarriage of justice involving the death of his son). If he could, he could free them and move on. In VI, William's put a grimmer position: His co-workers are stuck in a series of traps built so that William must repeatedly chose which people will live and which will die.
The secondary plot involves Hoffman, Jigsaw's surviving disciple, and Jigsaw's wife, Jill, carrying out what they believe will be the last Jigsaw game. Hoffman also takes on the task of eliminating anybody who can link him to the Jigsaw murders, a bloody process that goes a long way towards thinning out the extensive cast of secondary characters and the loose ends they come with. All the while, Hoffman and Jill eye each other warily, each certain that the other is going to try a double cross. Too often the film drags in these parts - most notably during an extended imagined discussion between Jill and her deceased serial killing hubby - but the work needs to be done given the amount of unnecessary baggage the filmmakers need to jettison. By the end of the flick, the filmmakers have managed to rework Jigsaw's character (yet again) into a more familiar and flexible vigilante type. The Amanda relationship is redeemed, salvaging a truly unique character dynamic that the makers of Saw III squandered. Finally, Hoffman is recast as a more direct, less philosophical sadist - sparing us, hopefully, from future lectures about the pedagogical value of traps. The Saw world is still a bit shaggy, but this pulls the franchise back from the self-reflexive circularity that was becoming liability. As in Saw V, I still can't imagine a first-time watcher understanding any of this secondary plot; but, unlike V, I can imagine a viewer still enjoying the film despite this material.
Visually, this isn't the most attractive Saw flick. I suspect that the strict budgets that have made the franchise so profitable are starting to take their toll on the films themselves. Many of the sets and traps look messy rather lavishly squalid. The lighting is no longer as crisp and the colors are too often overwhleming or washed out. The film is competent, but not stylish. In contrast, the editing has improved. The seasickness inducing editing that was a hallmark of the series has calmed somewhat into a still jittery, but more effective style. Most of the actors turn in adequate performances, with Peter Outerbridge (William) and Shawnee Smith (Amanda). In fact, Outerbridge turns in what might be the first truly genuinely effecting moment of the franchise. When Outbridge's William locks eyes with one of the people he has doomed, the Saw series finally hints at what the real emotional cost or tough moral decisions might be. Even the normally painfully-wooden Costas Mandylor finds a groove. By making his character more brutish, it actually makes Mandylor's inert persona into an asset.
I don't know if Saw VI will turn out to be an outlier or if it reveals that the franchise is going in a new, more vibrant direction. Either way, it is a welcome addition to the series.