Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Friday, October 23, 2009

SAW III Film Review

by Brian Holcomb

Saw III is the latest installment of the horror franchise specializing in the violent cutting of both flesh and celluloid. The flesh we expect. The celluloid is fashionably cut to please the supposedly fickle audience attention span. Utterly paranoid of inducing anything resembling boredom, the entire film is jacked up to the nth degree. This includes the soundtrack which is mixed with all the subtlety and finesse of a runaway vacuum cleaner. Images jump, blip, strobe, and shock like an epileptic seizure - all the result of director Darren Lynn Bousman’s lack of trust in his screenplay, his cinematographer and his cast. This is a shame since all three elements are much better than his direction.

FOR THOSE WHO CAME IN LATE: Jigsaw’s not doing too well. After spending two films creating torture devices of extraordinary magnitude, he is now aware of his own mortality. It seems as though he is about to turn over his house of horrors to his loyal assistant, Amanda (Shawnee Smith). Another game is about to begin and this time it involves an attractive young surgeon (Bahar Soomekh) who is tasked against her will to perform brain surgery on the ailing madman. Apparently, Jigsaw wants only to teach the world about “forgiveness”. His pawn this time is Jeff (Angus Macfadyen), a vengeance driven man who lost his son in a hit and run accident which destroyed his entire life and those of his ex-wife and young daughter as well. Jeff is placed into Jigsaw’s rat trap and offered up the object of his hate as the prize if he can only make the “right” choices and survive the gauntlet.

Leigh Whannell’s screenplay is much better than usual for this type of film but seems overly committed to making a slasher film about moral choices. Unfortunately, when the choices come between watching a man being drawn and quartered mechanically or saving him, the film is at complete odds with itself. Of course we want to see the man drawn and quartered; hopefully in great detail. The entire point here is to watch characters get tortured and killed in inventive ways. Morality is the anti-thesis of this entire genre. It’s based on breaking taboos. No one came to this party armed with condoms and a designated driver. So, while the film’s dialogue makes pleas for the pointlessness of vengeance, the film’s images revel in bloody, bone crunching Grand Guignol.

Along with the thematic confusion, the production is also damaged by its very frugality. Sets are cramped and are merely unimaginative variations on the “rusty old factory” location found in most survival horror video games. But the most aggravating aspect is its use of stock footage. In some ways Saw III resembles one of those budget episodes that sitcom producers roll out when the season proves too costly. Gather the Friends around and have them reminisce about that time when…cue the dissolve to footage from episode 97. Saw III is packed with stock footage from the previous two Saws to the point where it seems less like an actual movie and more like a mad mix tape. The Bloody Best of Saw!Of course, most of what is shown is pointless filler.

The hyperactive filmmaking itself would be effective if it occurred in moments of great tension set apart by scenes photographed and edited more conventionally. However, the film is cut like an action film in even the quietest of scenes. The cinematography by David A. Armstrong is drenched in atmosphere but the cutting ignores it completely, chopping it up into pieces like one of Jigsaw’s ingenious devices.

Performances are nearly impossible to judge. Angus Macfadyen was so good in both Braveheart and as Orson Welles in The Cradle Will Rock. But here, he is seen emoting in occasional flash cuts which explode in and out of scenes like subliminal advertising for emotional dysfunction. I’ll have to go back and watch him in slow motion and freeze frame. As the dying Jigsaw, Tobin Bell continues to employ the David Caruso technique of whispered acting. His quiet line readings are almost the only refuge from the screaming. Besides that, the only actual performances not drowned out by the cinematic sound and fury are those by the women. Both Shawnee Smith and Bahar Soomekh give performances that shade in the pencil sketch characters they were given. In Smith’s case, I doubt the script called for much more than mere stage directions to enter and exit. As a whole, the entire cast is better than this film deserves.

In the old days they used to make these movies more honestly. They were “banned in 47 or 68 countries” and titled Faces of Death. That series was nothing more than a plotless “documentary” featuring a series of violent tortures and deaths. It was fictionalized snuff without the pretense of some kind of illogical story. This current genre of torture erotica set in jigsaw mazes, hostels, and hills with eyes wastes time with the narrative facade. The teenage horror audience wants to see someone get his tongue cut out or his hands crushed. No one cares WHY this is happening and I am sure it would be scarier if it happened to a series of innocent people without reason. For all its nervous noise and mechanical tension,Saw III isn’t very scary, just annoying. Their popularity aside, these are hard films to enjoy. They are designed to fill the viewer up with the most primal tension of bodily dismemberment and then leave them hanging without catharsis. Saw III ends with its protagonist completely screwed. At least Eli Roth had the presence of mind in Hostel to allow his lead character some level of cathartic vengeance on his torturers. This is why the theme of Saw III is utter nonsense. Forgiveness? Maybe in real life we could learn a thing or two about the emptiness of revenge, but in this loud, screeching video game meat grinder, everything is reduced to the lizard brain. KILL! CUT! SMASH! SURVIVE! DESTROY! The fact that Saw III is so intent on jerking us off without a “happy ending” is the real torture.

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