For seven years, the Saw franchise was synonymous with Halloween. From 2004 to 2010, a new Saw film was released every Halloween to varying degrees of commercial success. Lionsgate Films opted to end the franchise with the seventh installment in 2010 after the surprisingly great Saw VI proved to be a box office dud. Now, seven years later, the studio has revived the franchise with Jigsaw, the eighth installment that, while being a fun ride, fails to justify its existence with a story that is overly familiar and a twist that doesn’t live up to most of its predecessors.
Picking up a decade after Jigsaw’s (Tobin Bell) death (which, you’ll remember, occurred in Saw III), Jigsaw sees the infamous serial killer back at his old habits, despite being dead for 10 years. Bodies are turning up all over the city with jigsaw-shaped pieces cut out of their skin. Detectives Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) and Hunt (Clé Bennett) are on the case. Working with medical examiners Logan Nelson (Michael Passmore) and Eleanor Bonneville (Hannah Emily Anderson), the detectives attempt to figure out who is leaving a trail of clues around the city so that they can stop the murders for good. Is Jigsaw back from the dead? Or is a copycat at work? That is the central mystery of Jigsaw.
To say much more about the plot would spoil a lot of the fun to be had in Jigsaw (and to be clear, it is a lot of fun). The screenplay, written by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldberg (both of whom co-wrote Piranha 3D and Sorority Row, the latter of which I am very fond of) inject their trademark humor into the film, but it isn’t as out of place as you would expect. That being said, Jigsaw lacks the grittiness that the franchise has become known for, a lamentable fact that is through no fault of the writers. What is their fault, however, is providing a justifiable reason for the film to exist and the film simply doesn’t do that. It’s a fun diversion but doesn’t really add much to the mythology of the franchise. If anything, it crams in a forced backstory that feels superfluous (though not quite as forced as the Dr. Gordon twist in Saw 3D). It will be interesting to see future sequels (if we get any) expand upon the revelations in Jigsaw.
Stolberg and Goldberg follow in the footsteps of Saw V, an interesting choice considering it’s one of the lesser films in the franchise, and split Jigsaw‘s narrative between the police investigation and a game that follows five criminals who incessantly fail to admit their wrongdoings despite being told over and over again to do so. The criminals move from room to room as their numbers dwindle, frequently falling prey to Jigsaw’s penchant for rule-following. The order in which they die is fairly predictable, but the manners in which they die prove to be highly entertaining.
Kevin Greutert returns to the editing room after sitting out the last two installments in favor of directing them, but you wouldn’t know it if it weren’t for his name in the credits. The trademark erratic editing is absent from this installment, and one has to wonder why. It feels like he was sleepwalking through the whole process (though it is always possible he was asked to tone it down). Also returning is series composer Charlie Clouser. It is a welcome presence, but his signature “Hello Zepp” theme is minimized during the big twist reveal, as is the rest of his updated score. It’s understandable that he would want to change things up a bit, but to play down the score in a film that is part of a series whose score is, to hyperbolize, iconic, is an odd choice. The direction by the Spierig Brothers also lacks identity. The film does not feel like the work of a pair of auteurs. This is disappointing considering their previous work on the better-than-you’d-expect Daybreakers and the impressive Predestination.
Of course, the main reason audiences enjoy the Saw films is the traps, and in that department, Jigsaw doesn’t disappoint. The film has traps aplenty and they are incredibly clever (even if most of them are spoiled in the trailer). Where Jigsaw lacks, however, is in the gore department. Jigsaw is surprisingly tame for being a Saw film, with most of the deaths occurring off-screen. Lest you think the film is without the grisly violence that the MPAA rating promises, never fear. The film does have gore, but it comes in the form of aftermath. A good chunk of the film is spent in the autopsy room, with partially decapitated heads and split-open chest cavities being the focus of the camera. It’s all great, but the off-screen deaths are regrettable for a franchise that has prided itself on graphic violence.
Jigsaw can be commended for trying to be different, however. Stylistically, it does feel like a completely different film than all those that came before it. In fact, it feels more like a police procedural than a gritty Saw film. Whether or not this works in the film’s favor is up to the viewer to decide. I believe it works, but the difference is jarring. Criticizing the film for not being like the other installments is unfair though. On its own terms, Jigsaw is a competently made film, but it does feel a bit passionless.
I really do enjoy the Saw films and I think most of them are quite good. My ranking? Saw, Saw II, and Saw VI are great. Saw III and Saw IV are alright. Saw V is bad. Saw 3D is an abomination. So where does Jigsaw sit? Somewhere in the realm of Saw IV. It’s not better than Saw III but it is better than Saw V and most certainly better than Saw 3D by a wide margin. Still, it can’t help but feel like something of a disappointment, especially for a film that is supposed to renew interest in a dead franchise. Stylistically different but narratively more of the same, Jigsaw isn’t the revival fans of the franchise deserved. Better luck next time!