Sunday, November 05, 2006

Movies: The jig is up.

Saw III is most likely the last installment of the popular franchise. So, before we focus in on the last flick, humor me while I take stock of the whole series.

Despite the flaws of the individual films, the first and second Saw films managed to do something that horror films haven't done since the 1980s: They established a genuinely viable franchise. Bigger commercial and critical hits were unable to survive the sophomore slump - Ring, Grudge, The Blair Witch Project - and any franchise that managed it past movie two tended to lapse into straight-to-video territory for the latter flicks – the Final Destination series, for example. Indeed, this trend was powerful enough to take down franchises that had already been established. The collective shrug that met the second film in the Chainsaw Massacre relaunch is interesting given we're talking about a film property that already produced one long running franchise.

This wasn't for lack of trying on the studios' parts. After the runaway success of the Scream franchise (the other notable exception to the slump slaughter), people were eager to crank out franchise films. But even the Scream blueprint proved far trickier than producers thought. After initially successful efforts like I Know What You Did Last Summer, would be franchises died as quickly as the victim teens that populated them.

In this glutted market of one-hit wonders, Saw was an unlikely success. The first film was essentially a knock-off of the superlative thriller Se7en. Saw's star power was notable for a horror flick, especially when the current crop tended to be filled with the forgettable and completely replaceable stock casts of endlessly monotonous WB clone-shows, but the film's stars were still strictly second string when compared to Se7en's major names. The film's appearance, with it's slick production values and lavishly represented squalor, simply underscored Saw's debt to the first flick and gave critics more fuel for unflattering comparisons. According to critics, all Saw did as take Se7en off-screen horrors, brilliantly suggested but never shown, and relentlessly focus in on them.

I think critics missed what made the Saw franchise unique. First, there was the manic characterization of the victims. Critics who said we did not need to see the murders that drive the plot of Se7en were right, but they leveled this complaint at the wrong flick. The victims in Se7en are there solely to exist as corpses. Their murders are simply moves in a chess game between the cops and the killer and we wouldn't gain anything from knowing how these characters died or what their last moments were like. Everything the victims do is part of the killer's message to the cops and, therefore, they exist most fully and totally as dead people. Even the police detectives in the film immediately discount the idea that the victims themselves are important – they are simply "the fat guy," "the lawyer," or, as the outlines of the murderer's plan become clear, they become entirely the sin the killer identified them with, literally rewriting their names onto the scene, so the cops can come to identify them as "Gluttony," "Sloth," "Greed," and so on.

By contrast, the victims in the Saw franchise are equated almost wholly with the decision they are required to make. We equate them with the trap and, in a semantically telling chronological tendency, usually with the effort they must make and not with the results: "That's the girl who has to get the key out of the dude's stomach before her mouth rips open" or "That's the guy who has to go after the antidote in the furnace." Unlike the Se7en victims (none of whom survive, notably), the central drama of the Saw flicks involves what a given person will do when faced with a horrific life and death choice. Se7en is about the creepy feeling of being played so effectively that you have no control – which makes the God-obsession of that killer all the more poignant. The Saw flicks are about literalizing the metaphors we use to describe the no-win, soul killing, back stabbing, lousy decisions we need to make everyday. The victims are, in a potent way, the real "heroes" of each picture. Even when they aren't given detailed backstories or careful characterization, the fact that they have a choice and must act makes them genuine protagonists worthy and capable of becoming on-screen avatars of the audience members' fears and desire to escape. (This is also what separates Saw from the more gory torture-porn of Hostel, where the characters are simply abused until one is freed accidentally.)

The second aspect of the film had to do with the development of a remarkably odd, detailed, and explicit character mythology for the killer. In this, the film more resembled Se7en than it resembled the slasher/torture horror films in its genre category. Though the killer has one of those one word IDs that we equate with slasher flicks, by the last flick, he's just known by his real name. Furthermore, he gets to provide careful exposition for himself, giving his pseudo-philosophical speeches and carefully explaining his motivations to each of his victims. He also, weirdly, comes off as one of the more "moral" characters in his film universe. This is a sort of cinematic trick in which we tend to judge the realistic (by which I mean, characteristics we might actually experience) moral characteristics as more important than the more morally extreme, but ultimately too fantastic characteristics. That Jigsaw keeps his word seems more weighty than the fact that he kills people and seems delusional about it. (This is the same movie morality that lets us value loyal gangster characters despite the fact that this loyalty drives them to commit often atrocious crimes.) This odd character design was made all the more interesting with the inclusion of a father/daughter aspect when Jigsaw took on a protégé. Most horror flick killers are simply bodies with murderous motivations. Or, if they do have characterizations, they are simply to bizarre to identify with. There's something fakey about the Chainsaw and Firefly families – we're told they are family, but it doesn't matter because they are killer's first. We all know that family thing is just an excuse to let them hang out in a pack. The mentor/student relationship dovetailed nicely with the pedantic nature of Jigsaw and felt genuine.

This brings us to Saw III. Sadly, the last Saw flick is an interesting, but failed flick. The secret of the Saw franchise was the in the characterization of the victims as protagonists and the character of Jigsaw. Unfortunately, director Darren Lynn Bousman and the several folks behind the screenplay emphasize the second aspect at the cost of the first. The plot of Saw III is typical of the franchise. Jigsaw has kidnapped a doctor named Lynn (in a mirror of the first flick, this doctor is unhappy in her marriage and having an affair) and Jeff who is shutting himself off to the world since the death of his son, who was run over by a careless driver. The doctor must keep the increasingly sick Jigsaw alive while he and his Jigsaw-in-training, Amanda, put Jeff through the ringer. Jeff encounters a series of people who he feels are responsible for the death of his son. He must decide whether to save them or not. All the while, the doctor fights Jigsaw's deteriorating heath and the increasingly deteriorated relationship between Jigsaw and Amanda.

For fans of the franchise, the extended look at Jigsaw and Amanda adds value to the series, but is the only thing this latest move adds. The traps are uninspired, which is a problem given that this flick essentially competes with the diabolical traps of the previous films. Jeff seems to sleepwalk through his tests, making his success or failure seem profoundly unimportant. Jigsaw's victims are passive bodies waiting for Jeff to figure out what to do with them. Unlike the two previous films, they are just being tortured and have no decisions to make. The gore, while there, seems less visceral than it did in the first two films. Like the sickly, weakened body of the franchise's signature killer, the series seems to have grown tired, a pale imitation of what it first was.

For serious fans of the franchise, I recommend this film only for its extension of the killer's backstory. In fact, that's about the only aspect of the film that was done right. Though I'm a fan of the series as a whole, I'm afraid that even using the perhaps overly generous Abeyant Titles of the Peerage of England Rating System, this disappointing film only scores half a Baron Badlesmere.


Heather Santrous said...

Very nice review. I have yet to go see this movie. I probably will once it hits dvd since I can't seem to find the time to go to a movie anymore. I like your writing for this review and for all your posts in general. I get a little jealous when I read things like this because it is something I feel I rarely do over on my blog. Keep up the great work!

CRwM said...

Every blog is different. You do the witty, short-and-sweet thing. I do the long-winded and just won't shut up thing. It's all good.

Thanks for reading though. I appreciate the good company.

Anonymous said...

I seem to be having the occasional bad luck with posting comments on Blogger sites.
It's like the second or third time in the last few weeks where I'm in the middle of commenting and then I get derailed by site maintenance or whatever.
This happened at least once on Mermaid Heather's site, too!
The SAW movies (disclaimer: I've only seen the first one!) also remind me of a moment in another David Fincher film, FIGHT CLUB.
Remember the scene where Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, are sort of spontaneously out on the town, and they wind up holding up/terrorizing this poor Asian guy in some little shop? It looks like Pitt has gone completely off his nut and is ready to blow this poor guy away, Norton looking on horrified. Pitt gets the victim to reveal that he'd rather be doing something else than work this dead-end job, rather go to college to be in a particular profession, something he always kept talking about but never got around to doing.
And Pitt suddenly says, go. Do it. And never come back to this store. If you do I'll kill you. SOMETHING like that.
Those people who remember the film and that scene much better, my apologies for obviously recounting that moment so lamely.
But, my point is, it seemed like a perverse, extreme method to force someone to passionately pursue life, not settle for a dead-end soul-killing path of living.
SAW is sort of an extreme exercise by Jigsaw in forcing his victims to re-examine their life choices, kinda sorta. But I get the impression that the series became a twisted, cruel Fear Factor-like challenge sort of thing, and less of a situational philosophical question.
Sort of like how the dreams in the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET franchise became less genuinely surreal and dreamlike and more literal, simply wild exercises in strange scenarios (for the most part).
Man! Am I even saying anything?

CRwM said...

You're making perfect sense. (How scary is that?)

Like the Elm Street series, by the second film the Saw franchise was already risking farce. The second film featured a group of folks stuck in a trapped filmed house, watched through video cameras. It could have easily become the Big Brother meets a fatal Fear Factor. This feeling was reinforced by the fact that film was populated by a B-list of television teens.

By the third film, the "philosophical" justification for the traps seems to have become so muddied as to be irrelevant. From a film fan point of view, if the traps were so undeniably cool as to overpower criticism, than this might not be a problem. The traps might not make sense, but who would care? Sadly, I didn't feel they were.

There is, in fact, a whole subplot about making traps that are ideologically sound from Jigsaw's point of view. Jiggy and Amanda, the trainee killer, have differing views about what constitutes an intellectually viable test/trap and this turns into a major plot point. However, given that Jigsaw built the questionable traps we see in the film, this bit of self-awareness falls flat.