Saw 3D may just be the Saw-iest Saw film of them all. The real tradition of the series, which co-creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell began in 2004, isn’t, as the film’s evil rotating cast of antagonists maintains, that the rules of a sociopath must be obeyed. No, the only hard-and-fast rule in the seven Saw movies is that there’s no rule that cannot supersede previously established edicts or even just complicate existing ones at any given moment. For instance, the protagonists aren’t told that they need to use the titular woodshop implement; one protagonist just infers that he must cut his leg off to live and so it becomes a rule that must be followed.
Saw 3D keeps that tradition alive and well by simultaneously throwing several of the tenets of the last six films out the window and randomly maintaining others. Screenwriters Mark Dunstan and Patrick Melton, who have been writing the films since Saw IV, have found the perfect way to end what may be the horror genre’s most weirdly ambitious and incompetent series. They’ve embraced the fact that they’re writing the conclusion to the longest cinematic serial narrative and hence have ditched logic almost completely in the knowledge that making up stuff as they go along is expected of soap opera writers. And make no mistake: The Saw movies are holistically a lumbering soap assembled via ret-conned flashbacks, grounded by a histrionic sense of morality and foregrounded by its attention to cheap sensation above everything else.
There’s no quick and easy way to understand Saw 3D’s plot without any prior knowledge of Saws I through VI, so forgive me, but here comes a big ol’ info dump. Previously on Days of Our Saw: Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), the most recent in a series of three people to claim the Jigsaw killer’s mantle, just freed himself from a trap laid by Jill (Betsy Russell), the widow of the original Jigsaw, John (Tobin Bell). Hoffman is now, understandably, pissed off and wants to kill Jill. Meanwhile, Bobby (Sean Patrick Flannery), a man that exploitatively claims to have been a survivor of Jigsaw’s serial crimes so he can cash in with a motivational self-help book, is going through the latest series of trials left by Hoffman. The gauntlet Hoffman left for Bobby is meant to teach Bobby the lessons that he claims he previously learned when he supposedly had meat hooks dug into his pecs and lived to not only tell the tale, but to make a profit off of it. In reality, all Hoffman’s traps do is teach Bobby that nothing ever made sense in Jigsaw’s world. While all this is going on, Detective Gibson (Chad Donella) is trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Oh yeah, and Dr. Gordon (a terrible Cary Elwes), the sole survivor of the grisly “games” of Saw, is there too.
It’s kind of amazing that Gordon’s character hasn’t been resurrected until now. If nothing else, the Saw series’s various creators are obsessed with the idea of not so much maintaining as constantly reworking its continuity so as to leave no loose end nor any potential excuse for further elaboration unresolved. So while John growls to Bobby—via flashback, of course—that “history is a passion for me,” that’s not really true. The most extreme example of the Saw films’ tendency toward sequential entropy comes in Saw IV, whose chronological events conclude at the same time as Saw III’s. Gordon’s return isn’t just Dunstan and Melton’s weak attempt at wrapping up the cycle and bringing events full circle; it’s yet another reminder that anything goes. Why Gordon shows up in Saw 3D to take revenge and not any of the other ancillary characters from the last six films is unclear. It just needed to happen that way because canned symmetry is the series’s forte.
The same is true in the way Dunstan and Melton selectively revive in Saw 3D almost everything else that remained a staple in the Saw franchise up until Saw 3D. For starters, the films’ characteristic carnival-esque-by-way-of-a-latrine-full-of-phosphoresecent-green-puke aesthetic is severely downplayed. Before, the Saw films were engulfed in CGI-enhanced shadows. Now, Saw 3D has a good number of interior and even exterior shots, the latter of which is a major change of pace alone, filmed with actual lighting cues. Likewise, the franchise’s fixation with torture devices that force the person being “tested,” as John has called it, to hurt themselves to either help themselves or other victims, is only sometimes enforced. According to Saw VI, Hoffman wasn’t a worthy of the Jigsaw because he rigged his traps so that his victims couldn’t possibly escape. The fact that several traps allow Bobby to walk away physically unscathed speaks to the decline in any form of logic, even the Saw films’ fundamentally misanthropic “I hurt you so that you can learn something” ideology. Furthermore, one of the sadistic traps in Saw 3D punishes a victim for something they were never guilty of in the first place: Cale (Dean Armstrong), the only one of Bobby’s publicists to support him when something goes wrong on Bobby’s book tour, is inexplicably denounced as one of Bobby’s “detractors.” Why? Does it matter?
But again, Saw 3D is a sensible way to end the Saw series because that’s how a soap opera as tawdry as Saw would be expected to end if it were held up to the standards of that genre and not horror. Like its ever-changing creative team, the Saw-verse’s characters are always bleating about how they are really the ones in control and that everything they do means something. But really, the series in practice is the most astounding kind of anarchy, the kind that’s mostly oblivious to how abrupt and high-strung it really is.