The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Full review behind the jump


: Darren Lynn Bousman
: story by James Wan and Leigh Whannell, screenplay by Leigh Whannell
: Mark Burg, Oren Koules, Gregg Hoffman
: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Angus Macfadyen, Bahar Soomekh, Dina Meyer

When Steven Spielberg and George Lucas wanted to dream up gags and set pieces for an
Indiana Jones movie, they’d go build sand castles on a beach in Hawaii together. The story would then be built around the set pieces, and they hired the best writers available for the task, because story matters.

I don’t really want to know what kind of powwows the makers of the
Saw movie franchise, now on its third installment in as many years, go on to brainstorm. At this point they’ve been amply rewarded for what they come back with, and it’s clear they don’t intend to stray far from the path, and here deliver another film canister full of self-justifying torture porn.

Someone smarter than I am should be writing about the success of these pictures and Eli Roth’s
Hostel – about why today’s teenagers are so urgently seeking torture on the big screen, and whether or not it has anything to do with their sense that there’s something the grown-ups of the world aren’t telling them. I, for better or for worse, will stick to reviewing what’s in front of me.

There’s always been the sense that the creative braintrust – original director James Wan, writer/actor Leigh Whannell, and Darren Lynn Bousman (writer/director of part II and director again here) – has been winging it, not even from movie to movie, but scene to scene. The Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell), who kidnaps people he judges don’t appreciate the gift of life and then forces them to choose between death and the most hideous mutilations, is dependent for his continued success on an absurd alignment of coincidences.

In this episode, in order to reach the “shocker” ending, he must know within a very narrow range of tolerance exactly where someone is going to stand in a room, or how quickly stuffed animals will burn, or when he himself, to the second, will be able to regain consciousness following a medical procedure. There’s a scene where a character frees himself from a crate by knocking it from a great height so it breaks open. At that point he has two hours to complete the tasks set before him. What if he had been knocked unconscious by the fall, and never even heard any of Jigsaw’s self-satisfied little motivational tapes? It’s not long before I throw up my hands, start wondering what stationer he ordered all those prim little cards from, and ask why the police, if they want to actually catch him, don’t just ask real estate agents who’s been buying up all the grimy warehouses in town.

This willful laziness about even the most rudimentary story logic catches up to the filmmakers and mires much of this episode in retread. We spend long periods in flashback, watching scenes from the first two episodes but from new angles – this fills us in more on Amanda (Shawnee Smith), the only girl to ever survive one of his contraptions, and who, we discovered in the second movie, has become his willing accomplice. This helps us understand how a senior citizen with a brain tumor (Jigsaw’s morbid shield against retaliation – he’s essentially already dead) demonstrated such agility and resourcefulness in capturing his victims and setting up their little haunted house punishments.

At first it seemed like the passing of the villain torch would help extend the franchise, since here in Part III his terminal condition has him confined to a gurney. Amanda even dutifully kidnaps a doctor (Bahar Soomekh) and fits an exploding collar around her neck that’s connected to Jigsaw’s heart monitor. He hopes to live long enough to see his latest “game” to fruition.

But Amanda is a poor substitute – whiny and unstable (hysterical overacting is a franchise trademark at this point), whereas Jigsaw is hypnotically self-assured. And compared to his corpse-like features, she’s remarkably easy on the eyes, and the film is not up to the task of figuring out how to make that frightening. She’s just a brat who got an “A” in metal shop.

The game itself, a grieving father (Angus Mcfadyen) given the opportunity to take downright medieval revenge on the drunk driver who killed his son and the people who enabled him to escape punishment, is so casually-regarded that we simply stop checking in on it for long stretches, focusing instead on Amanda freaking out again and Jigsaw soothing her and telling her he believes in her.

I’ll give the movie enough credit to say there’s a larger purpose behind all this (Jigsaw always has an impossible twist up his sleeve to tie disparate plots together), but consider the premise of this scene – a mentor figure in a hospital bed gives encouragement to his frightened protégé, who fears losing him. The fact that it’s one dismemberment-happy fruit loop to another is so surpassingly diseased that you could beg for the scene to take advantage of this subtext and become the truly disturbing piece it could be. But the writers simply can’t be bothered to think that long about it, they’re too busy slapping perfunctory dialogue in so they can dash off to the next contraption for pulling your ribcage apart or drowning you in pig renderings.

And that’s the point this third episode runs smack into but has no idea how to overcome – that no one survives Jigsaw’s games, no one learns any lesson, and the whole forward momentum of the movie would be interrupted if people didn’t act in determinedly thick ways. Jigsaw’s philosophy is fatally-flawed at its base – when confronted with death, of course people will struggle mightily to live. But the movies would not exist without the traps getting set off, so people don’t make the choice in time, or some accident of physics does them in, which he seems to uncannily anticipate, or else his master plan would always fail. He intends for them to fail, and then arrogantly claims to be helping.

Any of these shallow characters, dressed in miseries like designer clothing labels, would be better off simply committing suicide as soon as they realized they were in a Saw movie. I don’t know why they bother. I don’t know why anyone bothers to pretend there’s another reason they watch Saw III, except that they want to see the torture.


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