There is simply no reason at all to have brought the Saw franchise back to life after all these happy, wonderful years, but things happen without reason all the time. And anyway, there was a reason: brand recognition. So here we are, seven Halloweens after the release of the film first released as Saw 3D but almost immediately rebranded as the sweetest of promises, Saw: The Final Chapter. And that promise has now been broken - as it always, inevitably was going to be, of course.

The good news - or, at least, the best news under the circumstances - is that Jigsaw, the eighth of its series, is also probably one of the best, alongside the first 2004 Saw, and I dunno, I guess Saw II and Saw VI? Ranking the Saw films is a bad choice, of course, even worse than choosing to see them in the first place. And "one of the best" is a relative-ass claim.

But let's feel it out, anyway: Jigsaw is actually somewhat close to being fine. Perhaps the seven years away recharged it; perhaps the seven years away recharged me. Perhaps it's that the film has been placed in the hands of sibling directors Michael and Peter Spierig, who have made one very good film in the form of Predestination, and one film that's at least very interesting (though I have misgivings about the execution) in Daybreakers. Because the thing about Jigsaw isn't that it's better than most of the Saw films by virtue of disowning them and throwing out their rulebook altogether, though that would certainly only help. It's more that this is is simply a very strong version of the exact thing that the Saws have always been: scenes of random, hugely uninteresting people stuck in some sort of elaborate deathtrap torture chamber, cross cut with sarcastic asshole cops trying not nearly hard enough to figure out the location of the torture chamber. Add in a twist ending that serves the primary purpose of being complicated and confusing, and dress the whole thing up with some bullshit philosophy about being good and living life to the fullest, and you've got it.

The wrinkle this time is that Jigsaw is as much a nostalgia trip for its characters as it intends to be for its viewers. The Saw fan will recall that several of the films takes place within an inordinately compressed time frame: Saw III through Saw VI take place during a span of not more than several weeks in 2006, during which time philosopher poet/depraved killer John "Jigsaw" Kramer died (which did not keep Jigsaw actor Tobin Bell from coming back in all of the movies subsequent to his death, including Jigsaw). It's now ten years later, and Jigsaw-style deaths have started cropping up again, including DNA evidence that makes it seem impossible to come to any conclusion other than that Kramer himself is responsible. And so everybody involved, from forensic pathologist Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore) to investigating detectives Halloram (Callum Keith Rennie) and Hunt (Clé Bennett) to Logan's Jigsaw-expert assistant Eleanor Bonneville (Hannah Emily Anderson) spends most of the movie amazed and confused that all this is happening, so many years after it seemed to be done for good.

Meanwhile, five people are in a rotting old wooden barn - a nice change from the rotting industrial spaces of most of the previous films - being run through the paces of a Jigsaw murder trial: each new room brings with it some ostensibly ironic death trap for one of the individuals, based on the secret sin that they committed at some point in the past. One of them dies immediately, without our even seeing his face; the others are Anna (Laura Vandervoort), who seems so immediately sensible and good that we immediately start suspecting her; Mitch (Mandela Van Peebles - Mario's son and Melvin's grandson) is sensible enough and good enough but still with a certain dark edge that we don't need to bother suspecting him; Ryan (Paul Braunstein), who's just fucking awful; and Carly (Brittany Allen), who whinges and whines and has no particular personality, so it's not really much of a surprise when she dies first. Second. Whatever.

The latter Saw films - from IV on - all suffer from versions of the same problem: the ensemble running the death maze feel like they're there for no better reason than because the point of a Saw movie is to have torture scenes. Jigsaw doesn't break that pattern. The film doesn't exactly telegraph where the plot is heading, but anybody who has seen enough of these movies - and I cannot fathom somebody who hasn't being willing to bother hopping into the series at this point* - will pretty quickly be able to guess at what tricks the film is planning to play on us. The most obvious one of which has almost no other effect than to suck all the interest we might possibly have in watching what these four people are up to.

That being said, the investigation scenes this time around are substantially better than I remember them being in any of the older movies; the acting is quite a bit better, the characters are at least somewhat more interesting, especially Eleanor; the twists feel like they've been laid into the film with a bit more care than the "rip it straight of our asses" vibe of the earlier screenplays.

It's also somehow a more pleasant movie. Perhaps "pleasant" needs to go in scare quotes. At any rate, the film lacks the sense of toxicity and decay I have associated with the series; the color palette favors cool blues and browns instead of various hues of putrid green. And the violence has been considerably reconceived; it's the tamest Saw, which I would ordinarily consider no kind of good thing at all, but for this franchise I will make an exception. There are only a couple of truly exaggerated gore scenes, one of which is so dumb-looking in its flagrant CGI that it barely even registers as violence; the only lingering shots on blood are of a corpse that has had its head sliced in half, and here the feeling is so clinical and medical that it's barely more than just somewhat generally gross.

Instead of focusing so much on torture porn, Jigsaw spends most of its time on design and mood. And its plot, which doesn't pay off for it, but we can't have everything. But the mood, at least, is something: the goings-on in the old barn are dull as hell, but the barn itself is an evocative space, and the Spierigs film the setpieces from some reasonably interesting high angles that give a bit of scale to the action rather than focusing on where the sharp edges are. It is as close as a Saw film has ever come to classical, refined visual mode, which isn't very close. But for this franchise, a full 13 years after it was born into the world, it could have been a lot worse - indeed, this is just about the best-case scenario I could have ever dared to imagine.

Reviews in this series
Saw (Wan, 2004)
Saw II (Bousman, 2005)
Saw III (Bousman, 2006)
Saw IV (Bousman, 2007)
Saw V (Hackl, 2008)
Saw VI (Greutert, 2009)
Saw 3D (Greutert, 2010)
Jigsaw (Spierig Brothers, 2017)




*And yet, the woman sitting directly behind me in the theater would appear to be just such a viewer, judging from the way she phrased her very vocal unhappiness the minute the credits started to roll.