Starting with its third entry in 2006, the Saw series got ahead of its increasing ridiculousness with the idea that the bigger, more elaborate and “unwinnable” games were a product of apprentices ignoring Jigsaw’s philosophy and M.O. There was more blood, more gore and more total nonsense, but the deviations from the original’s simplicity felt like they fit, as any given game of torture-yourself-or-die was crosscut with a cleanup job post-Jigsaw’s demise for four straight films. The new film Jigsaw (previously Saw: Legacy) has hints of all the above, but its pieces are out of order. It’s ass-backwards with regards to the rest of the series in ways that would require spoiling its “twists,” but it also doesn’t feel like something getting worked up about. Even as a lifelong fan of the series, I simply cannot bring myself to care about a cheap-looking relaunch that feels strung together with minimal effort.
Gone is the garish, grimy intro involving an elaborate torture scenario. The tone of Jigsaw is set instead by a shot-for-TV police chase, over-lit like much of the film’s remainder and stumbling just as awkwardly. The chase ends with a new “game” being remotely triggered somewhere off in the distance for the benefit of one Detective Halloran, an extremely serious dude with a funny line or two who has to figure out this serial killer resurrection.
The situation is thus: John Kramer a.k.a. Jigsaw a.k.a. The Jigsaw Killer has been dead for a decade, but some remote slaughterhouse in the middle of nowhere has just become host to a cartoonishly elaborate walkthrough game with ill-defined personal stakes and someone throwing blades at people trapped in a grain silo. Five victims told to “confess their sins” are strung along by chains from room to room with mere flashes of why they might be there, but this is a game designed to play out in a very specific order. It appears to predict the actions of each and every individual, placing tapes with their names on it in specific locations on the assumption that they and they alone would be the individuals to succeed or screw up in any given scenario. That it feels a bit amateurish has a built-in excuse (you’re here to watch this movie for the “twists” and you know it!), but that it proceeds from room to room without a single hitch given that this is its designer’s first game is a bit of leap. Hell, it would be a leap even if they were an expert since it seems to require predicting the future.
Not only that, the victims of the game are then strung up publicly once they die in order to create a media frenzy, or rather, to have three or four reporters ask Halloran questions in the margins of a couple of scenes. Is John Kramer really dead? Well, outside of his elaborate autopsy in Saw IV, there’s no way to be sure! The timeline of the game itself unfolding over a few hours and the bodies showing up across multiple days ought to tip you off that there’s more to this than meets the eye (kind of like Saw II, but boring), but the “Who is the new Jigsaw?” question was never, ever, ever going to have a satisfying answer in this scenario, especially given that we’re introduced to exactly four new characters outside the trap: seemingly dirty cop Halloran, his partner Keith Hunt who only serves expository purpose, pathologist Logan Nelson who fought in “the war” (thank goodness this film doesn’t actually try and get topical), and Logan’s assistant Eleanor Bonneville, whose fascination with the Jigsaw victims showing up on their table makes her a suspect for some reason.
Halloran isn’t a fan of Bonneville’s “kinky shit” (she also has dyed hair and four ear piercings, you see) and decides that her “Jigsaw is back” hypothesis is enough to look into her as a serious person of interest. Bending over backwards to make your film’s logic line up is one thing, but doing so in a way that said logic makes your characters look like paper-thin idiots is not where you want to be for a series that, despite its increasing schlockiness over the years, at least requires some level of moral and philosophical engagement. Halloran and Hunt search the deepest corners of the dark web and find a secret Jigsaw fan site called “jigsawrules.com” (the use of “dark web” in this context is theirs, not mine), leading to the idea of there being a Jigsaw fan club keeping his ideas alive in theory, if not in practice, via re-creating games and traps from stolen blueprints, but this nugget of an interesting idea is left totally unexplored beyond Bonneville’s replica studio. Who are these people? How does their existence play into the potential return of their twisted idol? Too bad we’ll never know.
What we do know however is that the series’ own mythology might be a lie. Where there was once simplicity to Jigsaw trying out his homemade traps before graduating to wackadoo carnival walkthroughs with the help of several assistants, we’re now told that there may be a handful of massive, industrial-sized games from before the first ones that have gone undiscovered. Whatever we see of these Jigsaw: Origins contraptions goes against everything the series was about. Not only does Jigsaw himself feel like Amanda and Hoffman now (followers who strayed from his path), it positions him as never really having had a coherent philosophy to begin with, which was the entire allure of Jigsaw in the first place. There’s no doubt that he was a serial killer, but his outlook – especially when juxtaposed with that of his imitators – made sense in a roundabout way, and that’s what was scariest about him. That Jigsaw no longer lets him seem like a justified monster is perhaps its biggest sin.
There’s no compromise or upside to this either. Whatever the trailers may have promised – some including myself wondered if this would be a fun, more self-aware Saw – the film follows the same narrative tone as its predecessors but never matches them aesthetically. The Saw films aren’t particularly pretty to look at, and it works. There’s a particular madness to some of their later entries (the blind and mute victims chained to one another in Saw IV feels almost gothic in its visual approach). Jigsaw on the other hand barely even uses shadows. Not only that, its game involves victims who are unaware of the Jigsaw killer by design, so there’s no fun to be had with its borderline comedic look.
It’s all a mess and it rarely amounts to anything beyond the question of “Must there be a Jigsaw?” to which the answer is a resounding “No.” As you’d expect, the return of Tobin Bell helps expand on the who’s who of #TeamJigsaw (although the previous film’s “twist” seems moot; it appears Gordon & co. never got up to much), but the central problem Jigsaw faces is that none of this feels like it matters. This new Jigsaw’s goals can be achieved without the film ever needing any kind of connection to the actual Jigsaw killer (they could be achieved without any torture games at all; the film could’ve been set a week later instead of a decade and it wouldn’t matter), but the narrative bends over backwards to connect those dots too, and it makes John Kramer seem like a bit of a dummy in the process. Mild spoiler: turns out there was a dumb version of the bathroom trap before the actual bathroom trap.
As for the signature “twists,” well, I’ll avoid mentioning them as a courtesy, but doing so wouldn’t feel like it mattered either. At least Saw 3D, the seventh and until now worst entry in the franchise, felt consequential in the larger context of the mythology. On the other hand, you could say everything you need to about Jigsaw without ever mentioning the one film called Jigsaw, which is especially egregious since it positions itself as a vital puzzle piece. It isn’t.