Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
One of the most famous horror movie clichés is that the sinners always die first. Drink a beer, you're going to die. Smoke marijuana, you're going to die. Have sex, you're going to die. Be an all-around pain in the neck, you're gonna die. The "sinners die first" cliché has not usually been addressed outright in the past, but this changed when Lions Gate Films released the low-budget flick Saw two days before Halloween in 2004. The brainchild of Australian filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannell, Saw introduced the world to Jigsaw, an evil genius who places victims in intricate deathtraps to teach them about the value of human life. The movie was a huge success, and twelve months later, a sequel hit theaters and achieved even more box office success than its predecessor. Someone at Lions Gate must have had the idea to keep the franchise going a Halloween tradition, as the third chapter of the Saw franchise saw its release on October 26, 2006. And I'm willing to bet that it is perhaps the most ambitious entry in the series.
Master manipulator John "Jigsaw" Kramer (Tobin Bell) is on his deathbed. Closer than ever to succumbing to the brain tumor that changed his life, he has time enough for one last game. Playing the game is Jeff Reinhart (Angus Macfayden), a man tormented by the memories of his eight-year-old son's tragic death and burning with an immeasurable hatred for the drunk driver that caused it and for those who let him get away with a mere slap on the wrist. It is this animosity that has caught Jigsaw's eye, and he has chosen Jeff as his newest guinea pig. Awaiting him in a veritable house of horrors are three tests that will challenge not his will to live, but his will to forgive.
To ensure her gravely ill mentor can see Jeff's adventure to its completion, Jigsaw's budding protégé Amanda (Shawnee Smith) kidnaps troubled yet talented surgeon Lynn Denlon (Bahar Soomekh) and orders her to help him. To ensure her cooperation, Amanda straps a collar rigged with shotgun shells around Lynn's neck. The collar is remotely connected to Jigsaw's heart rate monitor; if he flatlines or if Lynn moves outside of a certain range, the collar will activate and blow her face off. With no options, she is forced to do everything she can to make sure Jigsaw stays alive until his final game can be completed.
It should be stated that Saw III is without a doubt the best chapter in the Saw saga thus far. It is remarkably strong, thanks in large part to placing as much concentration on the development of its characters as it does the creative and deliciously nasty deathtraps that have become the franchise's hallmark. It helps that the movie also boasts tight direction, an extremely well-written script, and an amazing cast. Put it all together, and at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it makes for one of the best genre entries in some time.
Let's hit the script first. Penned by Leigh Whannell, the screenplay is awesome. It has all of the twists and turns that fans of the series have come to expect, but it balances that with something resembling gasp! a soul. While the first two movies are dripping with misanthropy, Saw III actually has something to talk about. It is a tale of forgiveness and compassion, and although it is told with tremendous amounts of graphic violence, the message is there and the movie is better for it. Whannell's screenplay also focuses heavily on its four main characters, each intriguing in their own way.
The most developed and layered characters are Jigsaw and Amanda, who have evolved beyond their relatively minor appearances in the first film to become the franchise's most important characters. What makes Jigsaw and by proxy the entire Saw franchise special is that instead of being the traditionally sadistic villain with an insatiable bloodlust and a jet black heart, Jigsaw honestly does not wish death upon his victims. By his own admission in Saw III, he abhors murderers. He wants his victims to survive and become better people due to the hardships he puts them through. That gives Jigsaw a certain bizarre nobility that makes him stand out from his genre brethren. Take, for instance, the scene in which Lynn performs brain surgery on a half-conscious Jigsaw. For Jigsaw to agree to go through this surely painful procedure puts him on the same level as those he chooses to test. It makes him unlike nearly every other horror villain; it makes him human.
Amanda's story, from Jigsaw's victim to Jigsaw's apprentice, pushes forward as well. One could call her a victim of Stockholm Syndrome taken to an unconscionable degree. Jigsaw's trap for her saved her from her heroin addiction, and instead of intently following in his footsteps, she took a wrong turn somewhere. Amanda is a character full of anger and pain and contempt for others, and sees becoming the new Jigsaw not as a way to keep Jigsaw's philosophy going, but to inflict the pain inside her soul upon others. She's taken to cutting herself as a release from her problems, and a potential return to her addiction hangs above her head like a dark cloud. Amanda could have taken any path after surviving Jigsaw's game, but the one she has chosen is both frightening and heartbreaking.
Neither Jigsaw or Amanda reveal all the cards in their hands until the grand finale, and my, what a finale it is. One of the franchise's trademarks is the twist ending in each chapter, and Saw III's twist is the biggest yet. Whannell's screenplay wraps up nearly every loose end from the entire trilogy thus far in the movie's last five minutes, and brings the entire Saw universe full circle. We're given the broadest scope of Jigsaw's world yet, making the franchise is deeper because of it.
Up next is the direction by Darren Lynn Bousman. Working with cinematographer David Armstrong, Bousman's direction is excellently done. He utilizes some amazing scene transitions and maintains the franchise's traditional rapid-fire editing, while changing things up a little, as he incorporates a darker, gloomier atmosphere in the scenes with Jeff while using the franchise's usual bright lighting for Jigsaw's lair. Much of the movie also looks to have a very light, almost subliminal green tint, which I found to help quite a bit with establishing the proper atmosphere for the movie. This ambience is greatly assisted by the remarkable score composed by Charlie Clouser. I absolutely loved Clouser's music for the first two Saw movies, and he didn't let me down with Saw III. The score is very heavy, very industrial, and very befitting of the movie's tone. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the recurring reprisals of the "Zepp Overture," a piece of music from the first Saw that has essentially become the de facto theme song for the series. Clouser uses a few different versions of the song throughout the movie, each one used in a way that enhances the scenes they're featured in.
Last but not least, there's the cast. I found Bahar Soomekh to be off and on in her role, but Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, and Angus Macfayden are all amazing. Macfadyen's performance as Jeff, a father whose mourning of the past is ruining his present, is utterly sympathetic. The role is an emotional and heart-wrenching one, and Macfayden knocks it out of the park. And once again, both Bell and Smith, the glue that have held the entire series together, are nothing short of wonderful. I honestly cannot imagine anyone else in their roles. The character of Amanda is simultaneously strong and weak, forceful and vulnerable, and Smith's powerful performance reflects that. Smith balances Amanda's rage and fragility excellently, something that I feel strengthens the character. Meanwhile, Bell still manages to be excellent while doing the bulk of his performance lying on his back. I stated above that Jigsaw is a very human villain, and I believe that what Bell brings a lot of that to the surface. He plays Jigsaw as someone who, despite being borderline helpless, is still very much trying to assert his control over his life's work even as chinks in his armor begin to appear. This, along giving Jigsaw a reserved, almost accepting outlook on being faced with his own mortality, really made a difference on how I look at the character even in the prior two movies. If one looks at Jigsaw's evolution over the course of the series, from evil genius to puppet master to a man in the twilight of his life, you see how even though he may be going about it a way most people wouldn't dream of, Jigsaw is a man who wants to make a difference in the world. But while Jigsaw has evolved, the constant has been Bell's respectable performances. As I said, Bell and Smith are the glue that holds the Saw movies together, and I believe that to be the truth.
Critics have dismissed Saw III as just another mindless gorefest organized to simply gross people out. But did those people watch the same movie I did? While I will readily admit that Saw III is not for the squeamish, there's more to it than gallons of fake gore. It's a story that forgiveness is divine, and that nursing the grudges you have against your fellow man will ultimately come back to burn you. I'm sure that as long as the series makes money, Lions Gate won't hesitate to annually make a Saw movie until they reach Saw 37: Jigsaw in Space. But if it were to stop with Saw III, I think the story would be wrapped up nicely. Saw III would be a more-than-satisfying ending to a trilogy that's become a horror classic for the twenty-first century. And I think it earns four stars and a strong recommendation to check out the entire Saw series. Go check 'em out.
Final Rating: ****