Now in theaters!
Tobin Bell as John “Jigsaw” Cramer
Costas Mandylor as Hoffman
Scott Patterson as Agent Strahm
Betsy Russell as Jill
Lyriq Bent as Rigg
Athena Karkanis as Agent Perez
Donnie Wahlberg as Eric Mathews
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
So, where were we? Oh, yeah. In “Saw III,” Angus Macfadyen’s Jeff turned Jigsaw – the purveyor of pain – into a human Pez dispenser and was left imprisoned in an anonymous warehouse, a victim of his own internal conflicts. Jeff’s daughter? Alive and left in some room for her father to find her. Amanda is dead. Jeff’s wife, dead. Dina Meyer’s Detective Kerry, dead. Everyone’s D-E-A-D, dead! What story is there left to tell? Good question.
If you’ve been following this tangled series (that proves, yes, this is the new horror generation’s “Friday the 13th,” however, it offers, shall we say, more brain matter with its bloody gristle) Jeff’s arc has gone unresolved. With the series’ master of malicious machinery nothing more than a cold filet o’ fish, who is left to carry this wicked legacy? Faced with that unenviable predicament, Twisted Pictures has brought in a new writing team – Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton (“Feast”). Call it a needed injection of fresh blood. And while that might welcome, some of what they bring to the table works, some of it doesn’t. Props, however, to this pair for not steering the series wildly off course (see: “Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning”), staying true to the “Saw” universe and delivering an intense nail-biter. They’ve fashioned the most complicated “Saw” to date, laden with more dreadful traps, but there’s a certain disconnectedness this time out that has a lot to do with the fact that this entry is so overstuffed with ideas that the series feels ready to implode.
How to go about a plot synopsis without giving away too much (furthermore force Lionsgate’s legal team to crack down on our ass)… Here, we’ll take a shot it. During an autopsy of Jigsaw (aka John Cramer) – a delicious piece of cinema as real-looking as anything you see on the Discovery Channel – series regular, Detective Hoffman, discovers a micro-cassette floating in the digestive juices of Jig’s stomach. As TV spots and trailers have revealed, Jigsaw’s message is clear: His work will continue. What’s that mean? Nothing good for Officer Rigg who has been pulled into the game and must follow a series of clues from one location to the next meeting “trapped” individuals along the way. Tracking his movements are FBI agents Strahm and Perez, newcomers to the “Saw” universe. Strahm displays his ingenuity often, but interrogation scenes, when he has Jigsaw’s ex, Jill, under the spotlight, portray him as a one-note bad-ass that don’t necessarily put us on his side. It’s during his questioning of Jill that “Saw IV” dips back into prequel territory, detailing the early days of John Cramer – his loves, his tragic losses and his metamorphosis into Jigsaw (which lends itself to a look at the genesis of the Billy puppet and his very first trap).
I hope that breakdown alone conveys that “Saw IV” is a busy little beaver. Maybe too busy? Perhaps. “Saw IV” features the first flashback within a flashback I’ve ever seen since John Carpenter’s “Ghosts of Mars” – it may be on par with that film in regards to flashback count, too. Nevertheless, if you can follow along, good for you. I pity the soul who has never seen a “Saw” film in their life (although there were a few at the screening I attended who were singing its praises). What “Saw IV” succeeds at doing best is forcing you into the game and following its narrative intricacies so intently that you forget you’re not invested in any one character. Chapters two and three emotionally hinged on Jigsaw, Amanda and Detective Matthews; now any principles we’ve followed are dead, dying or missing. The supporting cast, and a few newbies, has take center stage. Suddenly we’re told, “Look! This character you haven’t had too much investment with in the past is now a pivotal character. Care about him!” And in all honesty, I didn’t. What I cared about was the facts.
This story moves at the speed of a freight train. I’ve seen the film twice now and have still missed references to its predecessors. Director Bousman (who can do one of these blindfolded now) and writers Dunstan and Melton have trimmed any excess story fat. If I wasn’t paying attention to the flurry of information being thrown at me, there was risk of falling behind or being caught beneath the wheels. Even Jigsaw actor Tobin Bell appears listless, maybe consciously aware that he has become absorbed by a suffocating plot. Only when he segues into revenge mode does Bell chew the scenery.
The diabolical devices the fans crave have their highs and lows – a scalping contraption ranks as one of the better scenes. All shed copious amounts of blood right down to the rousing finale. And that’s what we go to the “Saw” films for, right? For the mystery, the forward progression – to know what’s going to happen next and how – oh, and the funky flesh-rending traps. Based on that, “Saw IV” satisfies. If there were ever a sequel truly for the fans, this mind-bending chapter is it.
Walking away from its conclusion (which I’m not allowed to comment on), one thing dawned on me: The series has come a long way from a simple story about two chained dudes in a bathroom and a killer named Jigsaw who wanted to send a message. That message thrives in “Saw IV” (without it, the films are nothing), but Jigsaw is becoming more than just a man and his message has a wider reach than we initially thought (hell, I half expect the Twisted team to give him a Jesus-like resurrection in “Saw V”). The question is, how many more films are you willing to commit yourself to before true closure is reached? Make time for characters I can empathize with, other than a now dead man, and I’ll make time to see where this is all heading.