The Questionable Resurrection of “Jigsaw” (2017)

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It’s curious to consider the enduring appeal of John Kramer (Tobin Bell), aka “The Jigsaw Killer” in the Saw series, since it’s a legacy that almost wasn’t. By the time 2004 rolled around, Lionsgate had had modest commercial success with acquisitions like American Psycho and House of 1000 Corpses. As if responding to the re-election of George W. Bush  and the preceding four years of real-time, globe-trotting slaughter, the studio execs decided to take a chance on a low-budget, locked-room horror film. Initially slated for a direct-to-video release, the decision was made to give James Wan’s Saw a first-run rollout in theaters nationwide.

The result was a success story that fit perfectly within a national climate of unease and paranoia. “How much blood would you shed to stay alive” became a chilling refrain that resonated among the working class, trapped within a system that seemed increasingly rigged against them. The film also filled an essential slot in the Halloween movie season, giving rise to a franchise that inspired six profitable sequels over the ensuing years.

That said, 2010’s Saw: The Final Chapter brought things to a notably miserable end. Despite the reappearance of a familiar face, it was clear that writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan (series fixtures since Saw IV) had run out of creative ways to keep the perpetual pretzel-twist of a plot going. And, as with many movies shot in 3D but rendered 2D for home video, the gore gags became laughably over-the-top.

Not that the preceding entries didn’t veer into ludicrousness and suspension of disbelief, but for those willing to accept the absurd scenarios and wind-up plot machinations, there was lowbrow fun to be had. At their best, the films provided a sense of catharsis anchored by the philosophies of Kramer (played by consummate cool character actor Tobin Bell), and – strange to say – a degree of comfort in their formula. Things in the Real World felt so fucked that the promise of a new Saw film every Halloween became more about consolation than fear.

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John “Jigsaw” Kramer (Tobin Bell) in Saw II. Image source:

I’m not sure what circumstances prompted the Twisted Pictures folks to revive their mascot (a new Administration abandoning any sense of decorum and cultural curiosity, perhaps?), but I can’t say Jigsaw’s return isn’t timely.

As a title, Jigsaw isn’t really indicative of anything special. On the contrary, it reminds of the most recent Rambo film – where the moniker served more as a reminder to ticket-buyers of a once-profitable character’s commercial viability.

Jigsaw doesn’t plumb the history of Kramer to any great extent, probably because the previous Saw films subsisted so heavily on developing a convoluted backstory for the character. In perhaps the biggest twist of all, this horror franchise puts the aesthetic agony of its victims front and center, but is always more interested in the philosophy of its torturer-mastermind, and the life events that influenced him. Call it “The Jigsaw Effect.”

The one place where Jigsaw succeeds is in its look. As directed by the Spierig Brothers (DaybreakersPredestination), the image is less prone to dim neon and faux-grindhouse grain. There’s a clarity to the action that’s refreshing, and shots are distinguished more by flowing compositions than music-video scissor edits. (I have a feeling, though, that the Spierigs’ usual crystalline visuals were restrained to maintain a look consistent with the previous series entries).

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New sequel, new chain of fools… Image source:

When it was a bit of exposition in the 2004 film, Kramer’s philosophy was functional in seeing the plot through (providing a punchy twist in the process). But as the series dragged on, the irony of Kramer being as full of shit as his “subjects” was a revelation that threatened to veer into intriguing existential territory, but was always skirted. (I remember Dexter going down a similar path.)

But I guess that’s what the scene between Somerset, Mills, and John Doe in Seven is for.

Despite being marketed as a series revival (right down to the Halloween-weekend release), it doesn’t take long for Jigsaw‘s true colors to show. Outside of series regulars like Bell, Shawnee Smith, Dina Meyer, and Donnie Wahlberg, the thespian merits of each new batch of victims is always difficult to gauge. That they’re all going to meet their doom is a foregone conclusion; therefore, any humanizing traits are reduced to plot devices. Ditto the acting: considering how over-the-top the traps in Jigsaw are, the reactions range from caricatured to passably compelling. (But in all fairness, how does one do research for getting sliced and diced in ways that went out of style with the Inquisition?)

In any case: Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger’s script wisely scales back the amount of victims, which renders the action more cohesive. There is some suspense in the early going, and the events progress with mechanical efficiency. Unfortunately, the plot becomes the usual tangled timeline and a Who’s Who of potential suspects and accomplices. Even the series archetypes are out in full force: Hothead Cop (Callum Keith Rennie); Token Black Partner (Cle Bennett); and Jigsaw-Obsessed Goth (Hannah Emily Anderson). The film faithfully reheats all the familiar beats, but it’s disillusioning that a gap of 7 years produced something so typical.

In spurts, Jigsaw conjures the gross-out thrill of its predecessors, and some moments are properly cringe-inducing (a shotgun gag near the end is particularly effective). But the overall complacency of the story makes the continuance of Kramer’s mythos – of which we’ve already seen more than enough – seem like a rather anticlimactic proposal, indeed.

Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars