This review of Saw III is part of the Saw Franchise Retrospective series in anticipation of this month’s release of Jigsaw.
Saw III might be the most dull installment of the torture porn franchise. Directed, like with the first sequel, by Darren Lynn Bousman, this seeming end to a trilogy sees the final waning days of John Kramer (Tobin Bell). Kramer is an aging man with terminal brain cancer. He is also an eccentric serial killer known as Jigsaw.
While needing critical brain surgery (he kidnaps a woman and forces her to operate to solve this issue), Jigsaw has another crazy plot up his sleeve. His victim this time: Jeff (Angus Macfadyen), the father of a child who was killed in a hit and run. Jeff seeks vengeance for the loss, and buys a gun with the intent to murder the man who caused it. Jigsaw gives him the option.
Saw III crosscuts between these two subplots to create the longest film in the horror franchise. While most of the other films remedy pacing with short, 90-minutes-or-less runtimes, Saw III runs at almost two hours.
This is because the film wants to be more of a drama than a horror film. It has the traps that give the franchise its branding, but this feels like an afterthought. The story of the man dealing with the loss of his child is largely unimportant to the movie proper (until the end, that is, when the two subplots inevitably converge).
What the movie cares more about is its antagonist, who I guess we are supposed to root for at this point in the franchise. It also ret-cons the rest of the franchise by expounding on the relationship between Kramer and his new apprentice, former victim Amanda (Shawnee Smith).
What comes from this is a strange series of scenes in which we are not only meant to be implicated by the killers’ actions, but to sympathize with them enough to feel something when Kramer’s life is in danger.
That really isn’t how horror movies are supposed to go. The loose and perverted morality of John Kramer is a hard sell to begin with, but it is certainly not enough to make us want to see Jigsaw survive. Perhaps if the movie had more life, then we would want to see him make it out just for the sake of a third sequel (of course in retrospect we know that it didn’t stop Lionsgate either way).
Alas, this is Saw at its most lifeless. It gets points for trying to be more than merely a proto-slasher torture flick, but it is hard to buy it as anything but exploitation schlock. Even the first one, which had more of a thriller bent than a horror one, really made a lasting impression with its set pieces than with its characters.
The one sequence in the film that has a life of its own is the extended brain surgery scene, in which we see every detail of the process play out on camera. It is a well-executed scene from a prop standpoint, and is edited with the most energy of any scene in the film.
Tobin Bell always does a fine job as John Kramer, and here is no different. But watching him lie dying a table is less fun than seeing him toy with Donnie Wahlberg in Saw II, or watch him mastermind the plot at the end of the first film.
Saw III is the first sign of the Saw franchise reaching for something too lofty. The psychodrama aspects of the franchise only amplify after this film, in which Jigsaw’s multiple proteges prove to be far less intriguing than Kramer himself.
It is nice to see the film show some restraint by cutting down on the grisly torture sequences (there still is the rack sequence that does enough gory damage on its own, but still). However, the attempt to extend the mythology of the series doesn’t provide much to fill this narrative space.
The more interesting narrative in the film is the one on the back-burner. Jeff’s battle with trauma and vengeance is the more intriguing internal struggle, far more gripping than Amanda’s struggle with her undying affection for Kramer. Macfadyen sells the struggle, even if his Scottish accent slips out from time to time. Too bad the film cares more for its villain than its victim.
The films that follow Saw III are not much better than this third installment (some are worse, to be certain), but at least these sequels embrace the schlocky shock horror that put the franchise on the map to begin with. The truth is: it is too hard to take the Saw universe as seriously as Bousman wants us to in this film.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)