Like its moralizing villain, the Saw movies promise transcendence through trauma, only to then go back on their word and—after endless severed limbs, slashed necks, mauled faces and charred corpses—provide more of the same tedious sermonizing and suffering.
Over the course of its first seven installments, James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s series established itself as horror cinema’s most punishing, marrying elaborate death traps, gnarly gore and insufferable preaching to a serialized narrative whose convolutions bordered on self-parody. Its central bad guy, Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw (aka John Kramer), died in 2006’s Saw III, and yet on and on go his “games,” replete with needle-fetish fatalities, absurd twists and turns, and more climactic this-is-the-real-fiend! revelations than a season’s worth of Scooby-Doo mysteries. It’s “torture porn” alright, as anyone who’s sat through each excruciating sequel can attest.
By the end of 2010’s Saw 3D (not, as its subtitle promised, “The Final Chapter”)—in which we learned that Cary Elwes’ protagonist from the first Saw was, in fact, yet another of Jigsaw’s numerous disciples—the entire enterprise had long since started reusing its own gimmicks. It was a sure sign of creative rigor mortis, and yet here we are, seven years later, and Jigsaw has arrived to coat more Halloween multiplex screens in perfunctory bloodshed. The best thing one can say about this resurrection is that, as directed by the Spierig Brothers (Predestination, Daybreakers), it’s arguably the best-looking Saw film since the original, employing its predecessor’s trademark rotting-green-and-black color palette to relatively stylish effect.
Alas, that’s about the only positive element of this eighth episode, save for the unintentional chuckles elicited by its derivative attempts to surprise and appall.
Set an unspecified number of years after Saw 3D, Jigsaw opens with detective Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) and his partner detective Hunt (Clé Bennett) failing to stop a perp from acquiring a mechanism and pulling its trigger. That initiates another Jigsaw-ish “game” at a remote barn, where five individuals awaken to find themselves wearing steel buckets on their heads and neck collars attached to chains that are quickly pulling them toward a wall decorated with buzzsaws. Via loudspeaker, a man who sounds just like Jigsaw tells them they have to make a blood sacrifice in order to begin unshackling themselves from their demons. It’s the first of many times the never-seen mastermind behind this nonsense doles out typical Jigsaw commands, which, as before, require his gadget-ensnared prisoners to do something horrible in order to save themselves and atone for their sins (or, if they fail—or break his rules—to die).
As fans already know, Jigsaw’s games are rigged; no matter what the lunatic says, and no matter what course of action his prisoners take, they always wind up in a mangled, bloody heap. Similarly, though he claims his conduct isn’t “personal,” it’s always ultimately exposed to be very personal, with many of his targets chosen precisely because they’ve harmed him. That, in turn, makes Jigsaw not only serial killer-dom’s most annoying holier-than-thou schoolmarm, but an obnoxious hypocrite as well—not to mention, one who magically has limitless funds to create and stage these Rube Goldberg-ian tests, an army of assistants to construct his traps, and more intel-gathering capabilities than the FBI and CIA put together.
Jigsaw does nothing novel with that tried-and-true formula, instead focusing on another group of captives whose wretchedness—they’re all cretins who’ve committed secret, atrocious offenses worthy of punishment—makes them totally unsympathetic, thereby negating any fear one might feel for their safety. All that Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg’s script brings to the table is a batch of new misdirections regarding the identity of the culprit behind these copycat Jigsaw killings. It could be Logan (Matt Passmore), the medical examiner who’s still grieving the loss of his wife and coping with PTSD after having been captured and tortured during his Fallujah tour of military duty. Then again, it might be Jacob’s assistant Eleanor (Hannah Emily Anderson), who has a tattoo sleeve and is a demented Jigsaw fangirl. Suspicions also mount about Halloran, given that he has a long list of professional transgressions, to the point that detective Hunt is secretly investigating him on behalf of Internal Affairs. And don’t forget: it could be Jigsaw himself, risen from the dead!
That central guessing-game is eventually resolved, albeit not before a procession of trials featuring syringes full of poison, a contraption made up of spring-loaded wires hidden beneath floorboards, and a giant silo that fills with grain and, afterwards, rains sharp objects. These nightmarish ordeals are of a been-here, done-that variety, but they still boast more personality than the men and women forced to endure them, with the film spending less time on developing its characters than it takes to check one’s watch. Jigsaw’s favorite tricycle-riding puppet also makes an appearance, cackling weirdly and carrying more of its creator’s tape recorders—an indication that, for all his engineering genius, Bell’s psycho is more of an old-school guy. So too is Jigsaw, which diligently hews to its ancestors tricks, so that every line of dialogue is unreliable, every flashback is untrustworthy, and every plot thread is wrapped up in the end by a montage that reveals what was really going on during the preceding action (minus your laughter and/or snoring, of course).
The Saw movies long ago lost themselves down a preposterous rabbit hole of their own making, their mythology so illogical and inane—to the point that every new “answer” just created more contradictions—that they stopped even attempting to actually unsettle their audience. Jigsaw continues that trend, afraid to reinvent the conventions that first turned the series into a reliable moneymaker. In an era of anti-risk-taking corporate filmmaking, that’s as predictable as the final bombshell delivered by Jigsaw’s latest big-screen outing, which further muddies the messiest villain backstory in horror history. Thanks to his low, gravelly voice and eerily placid demeanor, Bell remains a malevolent center of attention. Still, at this point, his character’s saga is an ever-expanding puzzle not worth completing.