Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
Released by Lionsgate
There’s something about Jigsaw’s demented lust for life that makes him one of the most interesting villains under the sun. Horror baddies always lose their mystique with each passing sequel, but the minds behind the Saw franchise have actually used this to their advantage. The more we get to know Tobin Bell’s psychotic cancer patient, the more fascinating he becomes, and Saw III is easily the best in the series for the sheer fact that this character has finally been given the spotlight.
I’ll be honest: I hated Saw. The concept was the stuff of nightmares; the result was a sloppy film-school level whodunit with some horrendous performances and a distracting music video style. While audiences cowered at the visceral set-pieces, I found myself laughing at the bad dialogue and goofy fast-motion editing (the only thing missing was the Benny Hill theme). Call me old school, but I prefer the MTV-gen bullshit out of my horror. While Saw II inherited some of the same flaws, it was a noticeable improvement. Bousman and Whannel’s script developed Jigsaw into a unique antagonist, and the “house of traps” approach made for a tighter, more entertaining film.
Saw III has a completely different motif – one that’s more personal and character driven. This installment focuses primarily on the relationship between the dying Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) and protégé Amanda (the eternally sexy Shawnee Smith). Caught in the middle is a kidnapped doctor (Bahar Soomekh) who is forced to keep Jigsaw alive long enough to oversee one final test. The unlucky subject is Jeff (Angus MacFayden), a self-destructive father who has lost his son to a drunk driver. Naturally he’s down on life, and Jigsaw, ever the crazed shrink, is determined to make him see the light by placing him in the latest house of horrors. Of course, there’s always a twist, and this experiment proves to be the most interesting one yet. Jeff’s life isn’t in any real danger; rather the suffering is reserved for the people who have played their part in his great tragedy. Every trap poses a psychological dilemma: Jeff can either go to great pains to forgive and rescue each person or sit back and feed his vengeance.
While the body count is smaller, this scenario is far more dynamic, and the traps we do get are the most sadistic and creative of the series. The flashy attention-deficit style (now an unfortunate staple of the series) is back; yet, it feels slightly more organic and less distracting than in the previous films. Still, Saw III is at its most disturbing when Bousman’s camera doesn’t blink from the grotesque images – and rest assured, there are plenty.
While the traps are undeniably cool, it’s Tobin Bell and Shawnee Smith who really elevate this film beyond your typical hum-drum sequel. The two have a great chemistry together and perfectly expand on characters that were previously written to be ambiguous. Both strike a wonderful chord between scary and sympathetic, and by the time the credits roll, you’ll find that you’ve identified with them on some level. Likewise, Angus MacFayden makes the most of his tortured anti-hero role. The rest of the characters are pretty disposable, but this is still the strongest ensemble for a Saw film, and thankfully the actors never develop Cary Elwes Syndrome™ (i.e., ruining tension with hammy acting).
It should be noted that Saw III spends a good portion of its time playing “fill in the blanks” with flashback after flashback. In fact, it’s so reliant on the previous installments that more casual viewers might want to go back and bone up on their Saw before rushing off to see this one. As expected, there are plenty of last act twists that stretch plausibility (it wouldn’t be a Saw film otherwise), and a bloated ending recap gives new meaning to the word “spoon-fed,” but the whole exercise is pulled off with a level of tact that gives more weight to the series as a whole.
One last futile note to Lionsgate: No more sequels, please. We have our trilogy. It’s better to burn out than to fade away, and Saw III leaves a pretty nice mushroom cloud.
3 1/2 out of 5
And for another point of view in full-color comic style, don’t miss
Rick Tremble’s take on the film in Motion Picture Purgatory!