Of all the reprehensibly corralled lump of films that most know as “torture porn,” the Saw franchise is the one with the longest legs. But what was once the cause of the moral crisis de jour is now laughed at because of its success. All you need to do to get a rise out of someone is tell them that you’re watching the sixth entry in the Saw series. Stifled guffaws are guaranteed. After all, these films have been around for a while—almost a decade!—and the fact that they will be back for at least two more entries is, I must admit, funny in a manic-depressive kind of way. Unfortunately, this means that critics are less likely to give Saw VI the drubbing it and the dunderheaded series that spawned it deserve.
Satisfying as they may be, knee-jerk reactions to the film are not sufficient, especially when the most common remark you can find regarding the franchise’s last entry on, say, Metacritic, is about how convoluted the series’ flashbacks are. Really? That’s the worst thing that can be said about these films? Somebody’s got to take one for the team and risk looking like a nerd for the sake of taking the film to task for its stupidity. Modestly, I have elected myself. Spoilers ahead, this is going to get ugly.
Though scenes of torture are their bread and butter, the smugly prominent, though strangely under-criticized, cornerstone of the Saw films are their claim to didactic relevance. In the first film, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) lays out the rules of the franchise, which are continually broken even within that film. Because he is dying from an inoperable tumor, he feels the need to make people appreciate life more—by kidnapping them, placing them in elaborate, homemade death traps and, for the most part, letting them kill themselves. The few abductees that survive their brief visits to Dominator Disneyland should, if all goes according to plan, want to change their wicked ways. If Dickens had known what was good for his audience, he’d have replaced the ghosts of A Christmas Carol with skeins of barbed wire, shotguns and nail bombs and voila, you’ve got an infinitely livelier, albeit less family-friendly, morality play.
Jigsaw dies in Saw III, making the stars of the more recent sequels his would-be disciples, who continue to be ret-conned into the film’s story as both the roman numerals and the body count steadily rise. By the time fans get to Saw VI, two people have claimed the dubious honor of continuing Jigsaw’s legacy: Amanda (Shawnee Smith), a survivor of Jigsaw’s traps and Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). Both are deemed inadequate successors by Jill (Betsy Russell), a new, third disciple, whose importance is also only emphasized in the last three films. Hmm, it’s almost as if they were taking notes from the Lost writers when they came up with this narrative arc.
More so than the elaborate, carnivalesque murderous challenges that the film puts its central victim through (Saw VI gets topical by testing the worth of a mean ol’ health insurance claims adjuster), this new entry is about who gets to claim full understanding and appreciation of Jigsaw’s message. Hoffman looks like the guy to beat as he already killed Amanda at Jigsaw’s posthumous request. Her traps were impossible to wriggle out of and hence were more about punishment than the slim chance for self-improvement through mutilation. But as this film’s flashbacks reveal, Hoffman too has always—no, seriously, check out those flashbacks that everybody’s gabbing about—been rigging his toys to explode.
The mantle of a serial killer is being fought over with empty-headed vigor while critics—leaping all over Saw VI’s abysmal script, slimy non-aesthetic, slapdash grab at relevance and gleeful violence—never address the most obvious gripe of all: hurting people is not a good way to make them behave better. In a, sigh, flashback, Jigsaw scornfully tells Hoffman to treat his victims like human beings. Right. Jigsaw’s not a sociopath—he just thinks he’s God. It might seem like that point doesn’t need to be made here considering that the same could have been said about parts I through V, but hey, if we’re stuck on the whole “lots of flashbacks are stoopid” gripe, what can’t be seen as this film’s weakest link?
The Saw series has gotten this far thanks to its infantile central provocation—maybe the best way to help the wicked is to make them hurt/help themselves. That’s the cart that these interchangeable filmmakers have put before their dumb ass (all viscera and no brains, see). Without that pretense of pseudo-intellectualism, they wouldn’t have an excuse to support their nihilistic bloodbaths, much like how exploitative gasbag Herschell Gordon Lewis couldn’t have hustled any dough off of the rubes that went to his drive-in splatterfests without his signature sheen of solipsistic didacticism. If you destroy the brain, the rest of the body will follow.
If that was one allusion too many for you, tough shit, schnooky. And yes, by now, if you haven’t figured it out, I fooled you: this piece has been about judging the judges of Saw all along (did I just Double Shyamalan you?). Specificity is wanting in criticism of turds like the Saw movies because many believe they’re not really worth taking to task. The label “torture porn” is usually enough to get skeptics to giggle, pass gas and then move on. Saw VI is not exactly worthy of panic in the streets, but the Saw films are about as versatile as their lamest, most easily reproducible slasher forefathers. They will come back over and over again, and while that sad fact may make it seem as if criticizing them is a lost cause, if you’re going to do it, don’t get caught up on the fidgety fast-cuts or the crappy camera filters or the silly subplot du jour or the meshugenah flashbacks. That’s like mewling about how poorly furnished an apartment to rent is while ignoring the fact that the damn place is burning down.
Simon Abrams writes about comics, books and movies for the Comics Journal, the L Magazine, the New York Press and Slant Magazine. Since last year, he’s been obsessively keeping a film journal where he writes down something about every film he’s seen.