Friday, October 24, 2008

Review: Saw V (2008)

Saw V
89 minutes
rated R (grisly bloody violence and torture, language, nudity)

by Scott Mendelson

What we see right off the bat in Saw V is a series trying to regain its footing by pulling back. After the completely absurd Saw IV, they have nowhere to go but a little more down to earth. Like Friday The 13th, the fifth chapter represents an alleged new beginning. This is easily the smallest-scale of the sequels, and it has the feeling of a massively scaled down budget. That does creates a problem as many scenes are simply a couple characters walking through a hallway, or one character sneaking into a building. It's not a good film, and it almost has a whiff of 'direct-to-DVD' to it, but I did appreciate the buttoned-down tone.

There will be no plot synopsis, other than to say that the film again picks up right at the end of the previous film, and that the surviving characters all return. First of all, I can't imagine anyone deciding to see a Saw picture based on the story. The fans are either already invested in the long-running John Kramer mythology, or they don't care a whit about plot. Second, one thing I have appreciated about the series is that, because of the complete lack of preview screenings, and the spoiler-free marketing campaigns, the Saw films are among the few major movies that I can go into relatively blind. I'll give you the same courtesy.

From the very start, the opening trap has a logic and near-plausibility that has eluded this franchise since the end of part II. The violence and gore-level has been severely dialed down, with less total violence and gore than any Saw film since the original. There is certainly nothing to match the hideous body-piercing curtain-raiser of Saw III, or the scalping device in Saw IV. The traps are far less elaborate, and far less painful. Similar to part II, the deaths are quick and brutal, rather than drawn out and excruciating. One almost wonders if the filmmakers were annoyed at the series being called 'torture porn' simply because it contained gruesome violence. The problem with the film is the problem that has plagued the series since the get-go. First of all, the Jigsaw philosophy of 'I don't kill people because I put them into positions to kill themselves' has always been abhorrent and naive. I always appreciated the second film as the lone picture to actively call out the foolishness of this thinking. Yes, John is confronted by failure in Saw III, but he continues to rant and rave about 'helping people cherish life' in the next two sequels as well, and on some level we're supposed to be intrigued by his ideas.

Second of all, the Saw sequels have had an obsession with going back to previous entries and showing us a 'behind the scenes' view of the previous traps and plot developments. A solid third of the picture is made up of flashbacks (both new footage and old) to previous scenes from the previous films (even Danny Glover appears in old footage... you can guess which actor does not). I can't speak to everyone who is a fan of this series, but I couldn't care less about seeing how John Kramer set up that 'gun rigged to the door gag' from Saw II. Of course, without those pointless scenes, there is now no way to bring Tobin Bell into the story, so the filmmakers are in a bit of a bind. Good acting versus story progression. The biggest problem, most apparent in the third film, is the idea that John Kramer wants to teach his victims a grand moral. Fair enough, but if John succeeds in that, then the audience doesn't get to see what it came for - ghoulish traps successfully ensnaring their victims. Conversely, if the audience is invested in the character arcs of the victims, such as Saw III's genuinely compelling story of Angus Macfadyen learning to forgive the people who played a hand in his son's death, we don’t root for the traps. We sit there in disappointment as MacFadyen's Jeff fails again and again in making the right moral choice in time to save those in peril.

Maybe the filmmakers realized this, because the last two films have severely dialed down the seriousness of the moral flaw. The last film hilariously was about punishing a cop who cared too much, who saw the good in people too easily (don't want THAT in a cop, do we?). This one is more or less about, well, not trusting your instincts. So, in five films, we've gone to teaching junkies and murderers to appreciate their lives to going after cops who care too much and follow their instincts. I predict in Saw VI that Jigsaw will be punishing people for titling pinball machines, loving their children too much, and driving in the carpool lane unaccompanied. Point being, if you've followed the series this far, you are already aware of these issues and don't care. Me, I just go for Tobin Bell and because it's a quasi-anniversary tradition celebrating the first date with my eventual wife (we met on 10/28/05 and our first date was Saw II - her choice). While far less grand and less entertaining, the film is less over-the-top than Saw IV. And although it's far less ambitious, it's better written and acted than the overwrought and absurd Saw I.

I'm not sure where the Saw franchise can go from here (although a major plot point is left deliberately unresolved), but as long as Tobin Bell is getting his annual acting showcase, then I'll be happy to support the grizzled character actor who ruined the ending of Saw, since I recognized him as the cancer patient and did the math. Although casting Michael Emerson (who had just won an Emmy for portraying a serial killer on The Practice) as the assistant didn't help either.

Grade: C-

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