Saw IV would possibly only make sense if you watched it a number of times, but good luck getting through it even once. Every little bit of dialogue, every event, and probably every sniffle and cough point to the big reveal at the end. Up until then, it’s all gory, murky incomprehensibility, in which the moralistic psycho-genius John Kramer (Tobin Bell), or Jigsaw, continues to pull people’s strings long after he’s dead.
The movie attempts to give Jigsaw more of a backstory: he was married once, to a younger woman (Betsy Russell) who was carrying his child, and … Well, it ended badly, and then ol’ Jigsaw got hit with the cancer stick and smashed up his car, and after that triple whammy he undertook his life’s work (or his what’s-left-of-his-life’s work) teaching people the hard way to appreciate life. In Saw IV, the focus of his attention is on a cop (Lyriq Bent) so driven to Protect the Innocent that he neglects his wife. Ooh, a parallel! Jigsaw neglected his wife, too. In Saw III, whose plot as it turns out unfolds concurrently with Saw IV, the message was to let go of vengeful rage; here it’s to let go of the need to save everyone. In Saw V, will Jigsaw go after the executives of Lions Gate and persuade them via Rube Goldberg torture devices to let go of their lucrative Saw Halloween franchise? Or will he go after horror fans who can’t get enough of these annual Mikado charnel-house ripoffs?
Of course not. Instead, he goes after rapists and wife-beaters and junkies. For his other trick, he traps people into helping him out — either that, or he manipulates his victims into seeing his side of things. Once the Saw series is completely done, sometime in 2029 when Tobin Bell’s grandson is playing Jigsaw, someone will probably write a lengthy thesis on Jigsaw and his contradictory, hypocritical methods and philosophy. Jigsaw would rather not just kill you; he wants you to come out of the experience a nobler, stronger (if, sometimes, horribly disfigured) person, having learned a brutal lesson.
In truth, Jigsaw is an interesting character with an interesting worldview and an interesting way of carrying out his will. It’s too bad the movies themselves aren’t worthy of him. For one thing, they’re too grim, and too self-satisfied in their grimness; there’s scarcely a spot of levity in any of the Saw films, and the people who must negotiate Jigsaw’s deathtraps are barely sketched in. The cop, for instance, is allowed no personality whatsoever beyond sweaty desperation, and in that respect he’s no different from anyone else who has danced Jigsaw’s macabre dance. For another, director Darren Lynn Bousman has his one trick and humps it to death: the helpless victim is given his/her ghastly choice, and there are approximately 407 whirling quick-cut shots of his/her screaming face from every possible angle. By now, the style and the premise are so rote and tedious that the Saw series has gone far past self-parody into dull convention, like every other horror series that should’ve died after the first two.
Still, I’m aware that for young horror fans, these movies are what the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series were to my generation. You don’t go for complexity or wit or even good filmmaking; you go to see Jason killing horny teenagers, or Freddy killing horny teenagers in their dreams, or Jigsaw doing his diabolical-puppetmaster number. It could just be nostalgia, but it seems to me that soulless assembly-line horror somehow had more soul back then, y’know?