Tuesday, November 25, 2014

But Saw, What Light Through Yonder Window Breaks

Year: 2009
Director: Kevin Greutert
Cast: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Mark Rolston
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

We're past the point of no return. After this post, there's only one movie left in my marathon of the infamous Saw series. Luckily by this point, the films have established a baseline of "competent but dreary," largely accomplished by keeping crew duties in the family. Seeing as our director this time around is yet another longtime friend of the franchise, editor Kevin Greutert, it would be quite reasonable to assume that Saw VI might be in the same vein as its cohorts.

As it turns out, Saw VI is even better than the baseline. In fact, it's the best film in the franchise since Saw II. Don't take that to mean it isn't pretty darn bad, but it's like finding a Fresca in the middle of a cooler full of Club Soda. I'll take what I can get with the Saw movies.

Now that I'm thinking about it, I don't recall there being an actual saw in the franchise since day one.  It must be the work of those wicked hardware lobbyists.

We pick up almost exactly where the last film left off (after an entirely unrelated and gratuitously grisly trap, as per tradition) - Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson) is crushed to death by a shrinking room as Jigsaw's new protégé Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) laboriously lowers himself into the ground in a box filled with broken glass, smug as a bug. Saw V, everyone.

The next scene is the biggest twist in the entire franchise. You might want to listen to this song while you read the next sentence in order to be adequately prepared for the supreme level of twisting that is about to happen to your mind. Alright, are you ready? The scene that follows is entirely based on character development. For perhaps the first time in six films, a moment plays that isn't coated in grime as we visit Will Easton (Peter Outerbridge) in his fancy high rise office.

Will is the owner of a corrupt health insurance company and employer of the Dog Pit, a team of six highly trained individuals who look for discrepancies in insurance forms and find reasons to terminate contracts with sick patients. While we learn about Will, his work, and his life, the film acquires a slick, bright aesthetic that - for a single shining moment - allows us to forget that we're watching a Saw movie. 

What a gift. We should write thank you letters to Mr. Greutert.

So anyway, traps. The more the merrier, and because there's already been five consecutive movies to one-up, the more there are. Will is abducted and put through a gauntlet of four traps that viscerally depict how the choices he has made with his company have great impact on human lives. A mother (Shauna MacDonald) and her douchey son (Devon Bostick) - who has only two types of lines in the film, either "Acid Facts" or "The F Word." - are trapped in a cage with a vat of hydrofluoric acid above them. And Pamela (Samantha Lemole), a journalist, is trapped in a cage with a video monitor overseeing the other traps. So... That's something. It kinda reminds me of my Saturday nights, actually, what with all the Saw films I've been zipping through lately.

While all this mess is going on, Hoffman works with Agent Erickson (Mark Rolston) and the secretly not dead Agent Perez (Athena Karkanis), attempting to prevent them from discovering his true identity and feeding them clues that Strahm may have been perpetrating the killings. And he has flashbacks to when Amanda (Shawnee Smith) was still alive because why not. Also Jigsaw's ex-wife Jill (Betsy Russell) pops in from time to time to be ambiguously evil and remind us that - for all the bad acting and stilted line deliveries Mandylor and Co. bring to the table, things could be much, much worse.

Seen here in a brief moment of repose before attending the Unskilled Performers Association Convention & Yuletide Ball.

For once, the film has enough good elements in its production to counteract the blistering inanity of the script. Alas, that script thing will never change - although it's commendable that Saw writing duties have only been shared by about four people and change throughout the entire process. With such uniform work behind the camera, the stories may have wooden dialogue and incomprehensible twists, but at least they have consistent internal logic and characters. 

So even if Saw VI contents itself with unmotivated villains, a shrilly preposterous ending and over-explanation of its metaphors using Jigsaw as a mouthpiece ("The blood on your hands will literally represent the blood that's on your hands," he says), even getting him to gaze wistfully into a piranha tank ("Piranha," he says) while remonstrating Will in a flashback, at least it's coming from a place of organic nonsense.

But hey! Good elements! We've watched the "all the cool kids tint the frame" Saw aesthetic go from blue to green to yellow and back to blue, each shade more ugly than the last. But here in Saw VI, we get rooms that are only shadowy and grimy to increase tension when necessary and a much gentler teal color to guide us through. This color offsets the gore, which appears in full, steaming force in the opening scene, though it tones down until the grand finale once the traps get more plot-centric.

And all the plots service a political point, providing some of the only truly analyzable "subtext" in the franchise thus far. Having Jigsaw expound the virtues of healthcare reform while staring at a piranha tank and watching Hilary Clinton on the news may be overdoing it, at least it's doing something.

I swear, this scene feels important, but I can't quite put my finger on it.

Unfortunately, Jigsaw's pedantic MO is pushed extra hard to contrast with the more topical political appeal. Haven't we figured out by now that, despite his claims, Jigsaw is a far from "moral" killer? A good 70% of his traps this round involve at least one person being forced to die for the benefit of another. Sure, that person may be learning one of his soporific "lessons," but the human bait in their traps is afforded no true means of survival.

This flies directly in the face of Jigsaw's philosophy, as repeatedly stated throughout the six films in the franchise, vigorously so in this very film. I shan't mention that his philosophy is inherently flawed (punishing people who don't value their life by murdering them isn't exactly a motivational speech), because without it the Saw films have nothing. But in Saw VI their established logic is spit on again and again, yet nobody seems to notice or care.

Please excuse my fervor, it has been a rough couple weeks. But don't dismiss this as a nerd rant (hashtag) either. The biggest issue with the Saw films as a mainstream tentpole is that the lessons they teach are highly dubious. I'm not saying a torture film will inspire novice serial killers to pick up some iron shackles at the next Home Depot sale, but Saw's incessant moral-peddling encourages easily-plied douchebags to truly believe that this villainous character is righteous. You can toss me all the gore gags and extreme material you want, but that pandering moralism just doesn't sit right with me.

Unfortunately for these six, they'll never sit right ever again.

If the inherent hypocrisy of Jigsaw's ideology isn't apparent in the reprimanding scene where he yells "He's a HUMAN BEING!" at Hoffman after he dumps an unconscious man onto the floor, immediately before attaching him to a machine that will twist his limbs off one by one, then it can't be helped. I'm ready for this to be over.

Anyway, the film really isn't the worst. That's just been building up for a while and I had to blow off some steam before our closing number. Really, if you're picking one Saw film past Part III to watch, you're best off with this one. It's got its share of grotesqueries and idiocies, but at least it has a more intelligent aesthetic and a political core to prevent them from shallowness.

See you all soon!

TL;DR: Saw VI is the best of the back half of the franchise, though you should necessarily take that with a grain of salt.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1411
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: The Final Chapter (Greutert, 2010)

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