This review of Saw II is part of the Saw Franchise Retrospective series in anticipation of this month’s release of Jigsaw.
Is Saw II genius for its opening scene, which alludes to the horrifying opening to Luis Bunuel’s surrealist masterpiece Un Chien Andalou? Is Darren Lynn Bousman making some commentary on how art repeats itself, making a bold self-reflexive statement about where the Saw franchise was headed back in 2005?
No. Okay, just checking.
Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) is a father and a cop. That’s about all you need to know of his character. Lucky for him (?) he stumbles on the Jigsaw killer himself, John Kramer (Tobin Bell). But he can not simply arrest Kramer, as Jigsaw has a contingency plan. Which is to say he has a group of people trapped in a house riddled with death traps, and one of those people just so happens to be Agent Matthews’ son (Erik Knudsen).
Saw II is not a great film. It is not even a good film. In a way, it barely feels like a film at all. But it is arguably the best Saw film out there. It executes its silly premise the best, at least. Fans who enjoy the franchise merely for its torture porn bent will find plenty of that here, whereas the first film sells itself on the torture but functions more as a claustrophobic thriller. However, the film is not created based around these traps alone.
Wahlberg is an adequate replacement for Danny Glover, and that Tobin Bell has more to do here than be a voice on a tape helps, as well. Our victims vary in their acting ability, but none of them are as ham-fisted as Leigh Whannell is in the first film. Well, except for maybe the resident baddie among the group (Franky G).
The Saw franchise always takes itself seriously, so when the films get progressively less intelligent they become increasingly silly. Saw II, with its series of traps, feels like the least earnest film in the bunch. The first film plays itself straight and is the closest thing to a viable thriller. The later sequels of the series take themselves seriously and come off like cartoons.
But Saw II manages to balance the two extremes. It plays along like it is a genuine psychological thriller, but the plot inside the house is just schlocky enough to be gleefully sadistic.
Again, this combination only really applies to those who are already on board for the level of violence that the Saw series is dishing out. But at least it does this with a bigger intention than merely showing violence for violence sake. Not to mention that the most spine-tingling, cringe-worthy moment in the film has no gore whatsoever, but instead a pit full of used syringes.
Within its own universe, Saw II is the most narratively literate. The plot holes are smaller and less world-breaking, and the franchise had yet to fall into the trap of forcing plot twists into the final act. At least the twists in this film make some sense (keyword: some).
Saw II is also the most rewatcheable, its set pieces well-staged and at times creative. The characters may not react to the traps in common sense ways, particularly in one frustrating instance involving a glass box, but the situation the characters find themselves in is at least well thought out.
As much as this reads like a qualified review—Saw II is good because it is not as bad as the other Saw films—how else should these films be compared? The films only work inside the framework of their own broken universe; comparing them to anything outside would be a waste of time. Saw II merely does the Saw formula the best, for whatever that’s worth.
As always, thanks for reading!
Like CineFiles on Facebook for updates on new articles and reviews.
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)