Saw III (2006)
Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman
Starring: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Angus Macfadyen, Bahar Soomekh, Donnie Wahlberg, Dina Meyer, Leigh Whannell, Mpho Koaho, Barry Flatman, Lyriq Bent, J. LaRose, Debra McCabe, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell
(out of 4)
Labyrinthine, gory Saw III fully embraces the Grand Guignol that the first film merely hinted at; at the same time it arranges more pieces in the puzzle/mythology that the saga’s creators are attempting to assemble. Right out of the gate, it’s a mean spirited thing, as previously captured Detective Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg), when facing a similar situation that Dr. Gordon faced, forgoes the hacksaw and repeatedly slams a ceramic block on his chained foot, breaking it so he can slide it out of its shackles. I’m not sure which method is worse, but I felt the pain for sure. Saw III has a lot of breaking limbs, ripped rib cages, exploded heads, flesh tearing, and throat slitting. There’s also an ice-freezing death, a man drowning in ground up pig guts, and good old-fashioned gun violence for those who like to keep things simple. Orchestrating all of this cinematic mayhem is Jigsaw, AKA John Kramer (Tobin Bell), who has some pretty weird ideas about teaching people how to appreciate life. At one point John proclaims that he despises murderers, but considering that he kidnaps his victims and puts them in grandiose, complex circumstances where chance of survival is low, I don’t think he has the upper hand in this argument. In the film’s defense, however, it does present certain moral quandaries for its characters, and some of them are actually interesting. At the end of the day, John Kramer is still a monster, but he’s a monster who means well. And now, a disclaimer: if you are going to proceed with the latest entry in this long-running franchise, you should be prepared to accept the idea that a a weak, bed-ridden cancer patient can, with the help of an emotionally-compromised junkie trainee, create massive Rube Goldberg machines with almost unlimited resources.
Saw III ties up some loose ends from the previous film before getting into the main story. Naturally, it creates new ones at the same time; this comes with the territory. The “game” of the film begins when grieving father Jeff (Angus Macfadyen), out for revenge against the driver who accidentally killed his son, wakes up in a box with a tape recorder. He will be guided through Jigsaw’s lair (I assume it’s another building, since the warehouse in Saw II has been discovered), where he will be given an opportunity to “save” all of the people he considered responsible for his son’s death. An interesting ethical situation to put Jeff into; safe to say this is not a game he is good at, except for one instance where he is forced to burn his son’s toys to get a key that will free a man from drowning in a tank full of liquefied pig corpses. (Hogs are brought in on automated machines and dropped into a slicer; at one point they are brought in at a faster rate, at which point I realized that each room Jeff enters is like another video game level). Asked to “forgive” the people he encounters, Jeff doesn’t react fast enough, which is bad news for the poor people stuck in the traps, one of which is a rather disturbing torture device that seems ripped straight from the middle ages. In the meantime, Jigsaw’s apprentice, Amanda (Shawnee Smith), has kidnapped Dr. Lynn Denlon (Bahar Soomekh), slapped an explosive-laden collar to her neck, and hooked it up to John Kramer’s heart rate. Lynn’s game is to keep Jigsaw alive for a certain time, linking their fates together. Amanda is the game’s wild card – not exactly getting with the spirit of Jigsaw’s work, she rigs his traps so that their test subjects have no chance of escape. Having become emotionally dependent on John, she’s unaware that there’s another layer to the game, at which she is the center.
The strengths of Saw III lie in its willingness to take many things to their inevitable conclusion, which results in a lot of people not making it to Saw IV. Because of this, it has a rather nihilistic philosophy, embracing Amanda’s attitude that nobody really learns anything after surviving a game. She might have a point there; how nice that John still keeps on like that inner city school teacher who just won’t give up on his students. Still, there’s something fascinating about watching every character continue making the wrong decisions, dooming everybody as things spiral into oblivion. I also liked how John doesn’t give too many silly speeches like in the previous installment; the movie understands that preaching is best done through the playing out of Jigsaw’s “work”, and as a side-effect the movie is never boring. The ending is a string of revelations leading to a mean bit of irony involving a little girl, which spells out in clear terms what an asshole John Kramer is.
I suppose that this installment is on par with Saw II and shows that the creators (James Wan, Leigh Whannell, Darren Lynn Bousman) are starting to hit their stride. They now know what makes a “Saw” film tick – a combination of extreme torture devices, questionable morality, and complex plotting. I think they also know that we don’t really want the victims to learn their lesson; we just want their punishment meted out, Old Testament style. I believe this explains the popularity of the character of Amanda – she seems more human than Jigsaw, who just wants to play God. Amanda is a flawed human being; we understand why she kills. I’ll try not to get too academic with what is mostly well made torture porn with occasional intelligence – safe to say that the movie delivers the goods in a grindhouse fashion, and gives the audience what they came to see. But life affirming lessons? The only one I see is – don’t live in the same city as John Kramer.
- Bill Gordon