The Saw series is many things, including addictively watchable and undeniably iconic, but it is certainly not consistent. A graph outlining the franchise’s quality from beginning to end would look a lot like a roller coaster, with plenty of peaks and valleys even within a single installment. It’s not exactly fair to say that the whole thing went downhill beyond a certain point, especially considering how fantastic the penultimate entry is, but some of Saw’s worst tendencies came out in full force in the latter half, and there’s plenty of room for rehabilitation going into Jigsaw. So looking back on all seven Saw movies, what were some of the mistakes that were made, and in what ways can Jigsaw learn from them?
Among Saw’s most fatal flaws is that after the death of John Kramer, it was unable to find a similarly compelling antagonist in Mark Hoffman. Even though the Jigsaw Killer mostly remains off screen until the very end of the original movie, he is still a fascinating villain whose twisted ideology we understand through his actions alone, and his motivations are expanded upon in the brilliant Saw II. But from Saw IV onward, his successor is just a boring police officer who was blackmailed into becoming his apprentice. We discover that Detective Hoffman killed the man who murdered his sister and made it look like a Jigsaw trap, so then the real Jigsaw kidnapped Hoffman and forced him into being his number two. If Hoffman did not oblige, John Kramer would expose him as a murderer. Needless to say, it’s not nearly as interesting to watch a villain who is literally forced into becoming villainous as it is to watch someone who becomes villainous for specific personal reasons or because he believes he is performing a public service.
Additionally, it’s never entirely clear to what degree Hoffman is doing what he does to prevent his identity from being exposed and to what degree he’s enjoying it. When John Kramer dies, Hoffman continues the games, but is that because he thinks the blackmail threat is still active or is it because he wants to be the new Jigsaw? It seems that the former is the case, as, in Saw VI, Hoffman says that he is carrying out John’s final requests and that the games are almost over, implying he has no plans to continue after completing what John laid out for him. But why does he think it’s so necessary to execute John’s last few games anyway? Sure, John sounded vaguely threatening on the tape discovered during the autopsy. But as far as Hoffman knows, the only person aware of his identity is Jill, who doesn’t seem like she’s going to squeal on him in Saw V or Saw VI, and in fact, she helps Hoffman shift suspicion onto Agent Strahm. Hoffman does remark in a flashback in Saw VI that he wants the victims to suffer, so perhaps at some point, he consciously chooses to keep the games going for his own pleasure, but if that’s the case, this crucial decision apparently happened off screen.
Part of the issue is that Hoffman doesn’t really interact with anyone who knows his secret other than when he gets a few scenes with Jill, so he just sort of silently does things without having a character to bounce his ideas off of like John had. It’s not always necessary to completely break down a villain’s modus operandi, but Hoffman gets a tremendous amount of screen time for someone who we never fully understand or connect with. It’s like Breaking Bad but if Bryan Cranston’s face was super unexpressive and there were no Jesse or Skyler for him to talk to. The way the series manages to retain John Kramer as the main villain even four movies after his death is actually pretty cool and inventive, but this would have worked a lot better had Hoffman been given a coherent journey of his own rather than essentially functioning as Jigsaw’s surrogate, acting the way Jigsaw wants him to act for reasons that are continuously confusing. Perhaps the series would have been stronger had Hoffman and Amanda’s functions been reversed, as Amanda is an excellent character played flawlessly by Shawnee Smith, and her motivations are always well communicated. Unfortunately, like John himself, she dies too soon.
Another fault in the series is its overreliance on flashbacks and its propensity for looking backward rather than forwards. In hindsight, killing off John in the third movie was undoubtedly a mistake. Because no one wanted to get rid of Tobin Bell permanently, the next three films rely very heavily on flashbacks in order to keep him around. The effectiveness of these flashbacks is mixed, but in certain cases, they really distract and slow down the movie. Sometimes the films return to events from several sequels ago seemingly just to answer questions from the Saw message boards at risk of interrupting the flow of the present narrative. In Saw IV, we get a whole subplot involving John setting up his first trap that has little relevance and is mainly an excuse to give Tobin Bell something to do. In Saw V, we get scene after scene of Hoffman helping John set up traps from the earlier movies, and few insights are gleamed other than that this is how a frail cancer patient and a skinny young woman were able to accomplish so much heavy lifting. Even in Saw III, before John’s death, we double back on the first two movies far more than is necessary, with one three-minute long sequence just showing Amanda and John setting up the bathroom trap and explaining how John was able to pass for a dead body and why Adam’s key went down the drain.
Even worse than being unnecessary, sometimes revisiting what came before with these flashbacks unintentionally harms the earlier movies. For instance, information revealed in Saw VI retroactively ruins a lot of Saw III’s appeal. The final reveal of Saw III, of course, is that the whole game was a test for Amanda, who needed to learn to follow the rules and give victims a way to live. Amanda and John promised Lynn she could leave under certain conditions, but when those conditions are met, Amanda freaks out and declares that Lynn doesn’t deserve to be let go. This sets the final sequence into motion and leads to Amanda’s undoing, with the message being that Jigsaw’s methods don’t seem to help people after all. Amanda did not become a reformed person because she survived a torture game, and her failure ultimately results in her death and in Jigsaw’s legacy presumably not continuing on. Amanda choosing to shoot Lynn and deciding she doesn’t believe in John’s philosophy is a big part of her arc.
Unfortunately, Saw VI retcons that and reveals that Amanda was actually being blackmailed by Hoffman. Yes, this would be the second time that the franchise has lazily explained a character’s motivations with a blackmail plot. See, Amanda was partially responsible for the death of John Kramer’s unborn child, something that Hoffman discovered. And so he told Amanda that if she did not kill Lynn, he would share this information with John. This largely invalidates the arc of Amanda in the third film. Now, upon rewatch, we’re not witnessing an emotionally traumatized woman experience a breakdown, reject Jigsaw’s teachings and fail his game; we’re watching a woman who is being compelled to act a certain way so as to keep a secret hidden, and this is the only reason she fails. The letter helps establish that Hoffman is actively taking steps to remove himself from Jigsaw’s world, and it gives Jill a reason to want to kill him, but as a side effect, it damages the earlier movies.
There’s another instance of this in Saw IV, which for some reason provides a totally new origin story for John Kramer that changes a lot about who he is as a character. In Saw II, we learn that he’s a cancer patient who attempted suicide and after surviving decided that he would use his remaining time on Earth to teach people lessons about valuing their existence. But in Saw IV, it’s revealed that John started to go off the deep end even before the cancer diagnosis due to the loss of his unborn child. He seems to be heading down a dark path prior to learning he has cancer, and his first victim is Cecil, the man who caused the death of his child. Suddenly, the Jigsaw Killer has been transformed into a sad old man who started torturing people because he was angry after a personal loss, which isn’t quite as alluring as when he was a dying man who has become convinced that people must go through trauma in order to be reborn.
In terms of the traps, the Saw series generally suffers when they feel less like games and more like torture devices. This occurs when we as the audience are effectively just watching characters being brutalized without seeing them make tough decisions or have a chance at getting themselves out of the situation. The first time that becomes an issue is in Saw III, when Jeff’s actions are required for all of the victims to be saved, but he is so indecisive that one scene consists almost entirely of a terrified naked woman freezing to death, which is much different than a woman being given an opportunity to survive but having to do something horrible to save herself. It isn’t so much a problem because it’s inconsistent with Jigsaw’s philosophy as much as it is a problem because it’s gross to watch, and not in a good way. Later in the movie, we witness a man slowly having his arms and legs snapped as he cries out in pain and Jeff only kind of tries to help, and it feels unnecessarily brutal even for a Saw film.
When critics accuse the Saw series of being nothing but people getting tortured, they’re usually wrong, but the franchise does occasionally venture into that territory with traps like The Rack, where there technically is a game involved with Jeff needing to obtain a key but where in practice the scene is basically just a man dying horribly without having any sort of agency. Starting with Saw III, there are also some traps that are unwinnable, which is a part of the plot and not some oversight; Amanda designs them this way because she feels that the victims are not deserving of survival. As the series progresses, we get more unwinnable traps for various reasons, but regardless of the in-universe justification for it, the movies are simply more fun when the games can be won and the outcome is in the victim’s hands. Who wants to watch a man be gradually cut in half by a pendulum with no way to escape, or a man be trapped in a box that slowly fills with water?
In Saw VI, which overall is one of the finest films in the series, there are more traps that do seem to betray Jigsaw’s principles. John Kramer claims he never commits murder and that everyone in his games has a chance at survival. Yet almost every trap in the sixth movie requires at least one person to die. This can’t be chalked up to Hoffman betraying Jigsaw’s original vision because these traps were definitely designed by John Kramer himself. After all, John appears via video to explain them. Then again, there’s always been a bit of this hypocrisy in Jigsaw, as in the first film, Amanda’s game requires her to kill her cellmate, a man who presumably didn’t have any role in his own survival. But Saw VI makes it much more prevalent by having almost every game be this way, and the fact that the movie never acknowledges a shift forces us to question whether Jigsaw’s hypocrisy is meant to be a plot point or whether the franchise is just losing interest in its original purpose.
The greatest Saw traps are the ones that make us question how we would handle being put in that situation. Would you be able to cut out your own eye or saw off your own leg if that’s what it took to survive? Would you be capable of jumping into a pit of dirty syringes in order to get the antidote to a poison flowing through your veins? Could you decide which of two people deserves to live when both of them are right in front of you looking you in the eye? The least memorable traps in the series don’t leave us asking any of these questions (“would you be able to…lie below a pendulum and get cut in half?”) and are mostly intended to deliver shocking gore and brutality, something that Jigsaw will hopefully steer clear of in favor of emphasizing the original appeal of the games, complete with clues, clear instructions, and characters who have agency and can affect whether they live or die.
Speaking of which, the whole idea behind this series is that the Jigsaw Killer targets flawed people who need to be taught some kind of lesson, but the franchise often erred by selecting victims where Jigsaw’s reasoning for picking them seemed flimsy, to say the least. In Saw IV, the main test subject is a police officer whose primary shortcoming is that he once got mad and punched a man who was abusing his child; he seems to just be a normal cop who is sometimes a bit too quick to rush into a situation. In Saw V, a lawyer is seemingly chosen because he defends criminals, i.e. does his job. In Saw VI, a janitor is chosen because he works for a health insurance company (or is it because he smokes?). By the time we get to the opening of Saw 3D, Jigsaw is apparently getting involved in the relationship problems of the local college kids, and it’s a far cry from the days when he was selecting serial rapists. The victims don’t always have to be awful people, but we should at least feel that there’s a lesson at the core of their game that someone like the Jigsaw Killer would feel is worth teaching. Hopefully, with Jigsaw, the film sticks to victims who were clearly selected for specific, logical reasons.
It became tradition after the first Saw film to always conclude with a massive twist. That ending with John Kramer standing up from the bathroom floor was so mind-boggling that Darren Lynn Bousman felt the need to try to top it in Saw II, and this was kept going in every film after that. Typically the highlight of each Saw sequel is that moment at the end when “Hello, Zepp” kicks in and all of the pieces begin to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, and the best Saw reveals are the ones that blow the audience’s mind but that in retrospect we realize were subtly foreshadowed. In Saw, a sketch of the reverse bear trap is seen in front of John in the hospital, implying he is the killer. In Saw II, John specifically tells Matthews that his son is in a safe place and that all he has to do is talk to him; indeed, that’s all he had to do, and his son is literally in a safe. In Saw IV, Mark Hoffman says in a throwaway line, “Why don’t we start from the end and work our way backward?” The final twist is that the autopsy scene at the beginning of the movie actually takes place after the events of the rest of the film; the movie has therefore started at the end just like Hoffman said. We don’t make much of these things at the time, but in retrospect, we realize how key they were.
But the series occasionally ran into some problems when it made the twist way too obvious. In Saw V, one of the big reveals is that the victims were meant to work together, with every trap being intended for five people and with all of the deaths being unnecessary. But that’s fairly apparent almost immediately. In the very first trap, which involves five victims needing to grab a key to prevent themselves from being decapitated, it seems like one person could easily grab all the keys at once, or at least grab multiple keys, and we’re left scratching our heads wondering why the characters never consider the possibility of using teamwork. That continues into the next trap when there’s definitely enough room for more than one person to take cover from the explosion in each chamber, yet for some reason, no one suggests doing so. When the protagonists at the end come to the profound realization that they weren’t meant to kill each other, we can’t help but laugh that the movie thought this would be a surprise.
Similarly, the last twist of the whole series (or the original series, at least) doesn’t land because Kevin Greutert shows his hand early on. Saw 3D’s monumental reveal is that Dr. Lawrence Gordon has been working with Jigsaw the whole time, something that should cause the entire audience to gasp and should serve as the craziest, most unbelievable plot turn of all seven movies. But even though we’ve been waiting for Dr. Gordon’s return for years, the film doesn’t really make a big deal out of him being back, as he just shows up in a random scene at the start of the film with no fanfare. Later, he goes to a meeting for Jigsaw survivors, and his behavior is so fundamentally different and he is acting so hilariously evil – he literally does a slow clap from a chair in a dark corner of the room – that it’s difficult to imagine that there’s anyone who didn’t see the twist coming. It doesn’t help that this was by far the most common Saw fan theory at the time, but the reveal is still fairly easy to figure out by the survivors group scene alone. With Jigsaw, it’s vital that if the movie has a twist, it must be one that is foreshadowed but that the audience does not anticipate, though seeing as the directors are the guys behind Predestination, they likely have that handled.
Going into Jigsaw, this certainly isn’t an example of a franchise that has been utterly driven into the ground and needs a complete makeover in order to continue. But there are definitely issues that can be corrected, especially if this one is to launch a new series of Saw films. With Jigsaw, the antagonist or antagonists should be compelling in the same way John Kramer was, and we should truly understand what motivates them (or, at least, we should after their identity is revealed). The film should not rely too heavily on flashbacks, using them only when required and mainly keeping the audience rooted in the present storyline, and it shouldn’t reveal anything that will retroactively make scenes from the previous seven movies less effective. The games should be winnable challenges that the victims have an active role in completing and that force us to wonder what we would do in that situation. The reason those victims were chosen should also make some degree of sense. Finally, if there is to be a twist, it should be one that is foreshadowed by subtle clues but that the audience doesn’t see coming.
Of course, this is just going based off of what did and did not work in the original Saw series, but hopefully the Spierig Brothers can go beyond merely following a template, delivering a few other elements that we would not even expect from a Saw movie and setting the pieces in motion for another series of sequels that can be as addictive as the originals but that we don’t yet realize we want. As apprentices of the original Saw creators, the Spierigs should avoid losing what made the work great to begin with like Amanda Young, and they should also avoid mindlessly repeating what was laid out for them like Mark Hoffman. If they can recapture the magic of the originals while learning from their mistakes and bringing something wholly unique to the table, they may be able to create a game worth playing.
JIGSAW plays a new game in theaters on October 27th.
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