Winner of the past weekend’s box office sweepstakes, with $34,300,000 in receipts, the third installment of the Saw franchise offers more of the same. The new film’s script — again by James Wan and Leigh Wannell — is slightly more sophisticated than those for Saw and Saw II, while its concept is the same: the insidious John Kramer/Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) selects “subjects” whom he identifies as needing moral reeducation. If they fail his “tests,” they die.
But he doesn’t kill them. Even as he’s dying of a cancerous tumor in his frontal lobe and so might have other things to think about, John holds fast to his self-image as moral instructor, not murderer. As he repeats to any outsider with whom he deigns to have a conversation — say, the brain surgeon Lynn (Bahar Soomekh) he chooses to operate on his head — John’s mission in life is putting his selected “subjects” into gruesome situations, wherein they must sacrifice precious ideas or body parts in order to survive. But, as fans of the franchise know, John’s “games” are designed to punish more than teach.
They are also designed to provide grim visual pleasures — for John, who monitors all his subjects incessantly, and for the films’ viewers. As the films have been made for more and more money, the gross-out effects have improved: they’re more elaborate, more imaginative, and all in all, redder. (Given that this film’s first weekend’s take basically doubles Saw‘s, it seems an incontrovertible hit; then again, the first installment was made for about a million dollars and the third for 12, but who’s counting?) These pleasures are of a piece with the recent spate of torture-themed horror movies, except that John offers viewers a point of identification, unlike the wealthy vacationers in Hostel or the inarticulate cretins in The Descent.
In part this identification is a function of the speed of the franchise development (Saw was released just two years ago), and in part it’s a result of John’s self-styling after Freddy Krueger or Hannibal Lecter. Like those chatty serial killers, he loves to explain himself, to clarify his remarkable reasoning, to show off his superiority to everyone else. He invites you to admire his cunning, to take his perspective as to the dimness of his victims. This new installment also shows a bit of his ostensible emotional investment in the process: flashbacks reveal he once had a busty blond lady love, whom he also videotaped, who walks away in these images, disappearing into a sunny day so as to suggest his grief over his loss — of her and, apparently, sunshine.
He still had the camera though, at least until this latest film. Now he’s confined to a hospital bed he’s set up in the warehouse-that-looks-like-a-basement and distracted by the throbbing in his brain. And so he sends forth Amanda (Shawnee Smith) to secure victims, watch their progress on various monitors, then report back to him. It’s like she’s his proxy viewer, though really, she’s rather a poor one, disinclined to tell details, only results, as in, “He’s made it through the second test!” The tests, as anyone who’s seen a Saw knows, are so ingeniously worked out that subjects can hardly get their minds around the tasks at hand before their allotted few minutes run out. Repeatedly, they fail, spectacularly, their ends bloody all over the screen. Their faces grow taut with fear as they see their time digitally tick away, and their actions grow frantic: deaths here include those of the previous film’s cops, Eric (Donnie Wahlberg) and Kerry (Dina Meyer), who is punished for spending too much time on her job as a homicide detective (“You’re dead on the inside,” John tells her), and a no-one-cares-who-he-is “convict” (J. LaRose), who’s done something else terrible. Their brutal ends come swiftly, as they are only warm-ups for the main events.
These include elaborations of rationales, thematic/lessons links, and devices that suggest John has too much time on his hands. They also overwhelm his once sort-of elegant simplicity: where the first two films were largely limited to specific places (a basement for the first film, a house for the second), this one ranges wider, and especially steps outside via time, with all manner of flashbacks (some rendered cheaply in newspaper headlines and still photos, others more grandly, with bad memories colored and skewed-angled).
Poor Amanda suffers a variety of flashbacks, usually brought on by her jealousy of the brain surgeon, who is not only brilliant, beautiful, and a mother (though not a great mother, as she’s been popping antidepressants and spending too much time at work lately), but also earning John’s respect for her earnest efforts to do what he demands. Amanda tends to get flaky and lose focus, even making up her own routes through the maze of tasks she’s supposed to get done, in addition to coming up with her own goals. John, as everyone knows, is not fond of innovation. He wants his subjects to do as they’re told. The rules in his games are “simple,” he always says. There’s no reason to go off book.
And yet… like most serial killer movies, the Saws also ask you to identify with some victims (not the cocky dead-meat types, but the vulnerable, recognizably intelligent figures). As much as John objects to that term –victims — it aptly describes those unfortunates he positions for his (and your) amusement: a woman frozen to death, a man nearly drowned in pulverized pig-guts. Here, as John comes to appreciate Lynn’s gumption, so do you. Her early pill-popping starts to look less egregious as she makes her way through test after test, demonstrating a creditable capacity for blood, as she cuts into John’s skull with saws and produces suitably revolting splatter.
Lynn’s plot is intercut with that of another victim, Jeff (Angus Macfadyan), traumatized by the death of his six-year-old son (hit by a drunk driver). John thinks Jeff (who’s been frightening his little daughter back home by acting demented) is too interested in vengeance. Jeff’s lessons in “forgiveness” take the form of macabre tests that lead to a face-to-face with the drunk driver, a remorseful young man named Tim (Mpho Koaho). You’re left to make your own sense of the fact that this only black victim of the bunch is trapped inside a machine that breaks his body bit by bit, like slavers used to do to their victims.
Yet, Saw III isn’t about to make an explicit historical, much less explicitly political, reference. It’s much too interested in the show at hand, trying too hard to one-up its own previous vulgarities. In this, it makes its own sociopolitical points, indicting vengeance and interrogating the strange pleasures afforded by violence. A movie of its moment even as it borrows from so many that have come before, Saw III conjures all manner of torments, displayed for you as they are for its virtuoso showman.