After the release of Saw II had established puppet wielding sadist Jigsaw as the hot horror hero, the minds behind the franchise seemed to have big plans for this little slice of torture porn that somehow had scored huge. Saw and it’s sequel managed to link up fairly straightforwardly (as most sequels do) despite having zigzaging timeframes and more disturbing flashbacks than a Vietnam veteran in an 80’s movie, but with it’s third installment plans were obviously laid out to make things a tad more complicated and thus Saw grew from a twisted couple of complicated horror/thrillers to having one of the most convoluted timelines in cinema history. Splicing in tons of backstory that ret-conned established characters virtually on a film by film basis while still trying to tell a usual Saw A-story as some poor sod stumbled from booby trap to booby trap; if Saw II created the character of John Kramer properly then it was Saw III that established the increasingly intricate template the series settled on.
Beginning mere seconds after the previous movie hit us with the revelation that ex-junkie and two-time Jigsaw victim, Amanda Young, is actually a budding acolyte of John Kramer’s vicious world-view and has been aiding the ailing cancer sufferer with his sadistic endeavors, we rejoin Detective Eric Matthews as he screams and rages while being chained and left to die in a very familiar bathroom. Forgoing sawing his foot off with a handy hacksaw and instead opting to shatter his ankle into putty with a piece of toilet lid (hey dude, you do you…), Matthews escapes and stumbles his way off to an uncertain fate while Amanda bristles at the thought of him actually escaping. Flash forward and despite the fact that Jigsaw must be in the closing stages of his disease by now, more victims keep turning up but with a twist – now their traps seem to be deliberately unwinnable with no way for it’s victims to win whether they mutilate the crap out of themselves or not. While the police weigh up their options, we join up with recently abducted surgeon Lynn Denlon who has been scooped up by Amanda for a very special game – keep John alive long enough to see his most recent “experiment” play out to the end. Connected to a collar that not only does nothing for her ensemble, but will explode if Kramer’s heart stops beating, Lynn has to reassess her detached life pronto with only a bunch of hand tools at her disposal as this other game springs into life. This game concerns Jeff, a bereaved father to a young son who has essentially stopped living, as he wanders around a warehouse stuffed with the people responsible for letting the guilty party walk free stapped into various traps that will fuck them up six ways from sunday if Jeff doesn’t intervene in time. As these various plot threads rapidly start to converge, Amanda’s desire to see her monstrous father figure’s work completed puts Lynn firmly in her crosshairs; but this is a Saw movie and nothing is as it seems – how far reaching is Jigsaw’s latest plan, are all the players linked in other ways than initially suggested and considering Kramer has all these balls in the air and only he knows what the Endgame is, might he be taking the term compartmentalisation a bit too far…?
For a low budget, gut churner, Saw III seems to have it’s sights set on being the most ambitious torture movie ever made (bad luck guys, Martyrs tops it) and there’s genuine moments where Saw III actually skews surprisingly close to greatness, especially when it flexes it’s extraordinarily detailed plans that might even have Christopher Nolan’s Joker scratching his head in puzzlement. Delving into some pretty deep cuts about what we thought we knew about the franchise as a whole, Saw fans get some truly fascinating glimpses into the behind the scenes life of Jigsaw as the movie frantically rewrites it’s own backstory as it goes. There’s no real need to have a scene detailing Amanda aiding John as they set up the events of the first movie (nice cameo by writer Leigh Whannell who spends his thankless screen time either unconscious or suffocating) but it’s oddly heartwarming to see it all the same and it’s a good example to use if you ever felt the need to defend the series from complaints that it’s just an endless stream of misery – I mean, it’s that as well but there’s a little more than just cracking bones and wracking sobs…
However, as intriguing as the relationship between John, Amanda and their reluctant doctor is, less effective is the plot thread concerning Jeff which follows the more standard Saw sequel pattern that sees a miserable Angus MacFadyen watching people suffer before changing his mind after it’s way too late to save them. However, despite his truly tragic backstory, it’s actually kind of tough to feel bad for Jeff – not just for his questionable reaction time – but how abysmally he treats his surviving daughter while drowning in his own grief. Depression is a tough emotion to correctly put on a character in genre work as their lack of reaction comes across as selfish or indecisive and while nobody was expecting Saw III to delve into Manchester By The Sea levels of dissection into the nature of grief, this part of the movie comes up short.
Not coming up short is the ramped up traps which go a long way towards making the third installment one of the noticably more brutal entries to date. Rings are ripped out of flesh, ribcage are torn asunder once a time runs out and one luckless shit falls foul of something ominously called The Rack which proceeds to twist his limbs to beyond breaking point like a psychotic child with a chicken bone and we all get to enjoy them while the camera stubbornly refuses to turn away. Top of the grots, however is a showstopping sequence where Dr. Denlon has to perform open brain surgery on a still conscious Kramer with an array of workmen’s tools that’s way more DIY than NHS and the film takes predictable glee in getting right into the brain matter as the audience presumably dry heaved into their popcorn.
Gore hounds will be nicely sated but returning director Darren Lynn Bousman tries to visually mix up some of the standard industrial chic with some stylish flourishes such as a trap that involves a freezer that’s infused with cool blues instead of the series usual putrid greens and browns.
The most noticable thing about Jigsaw’s third ride, however, is how much random stuff is scattered around to set up plots for future movies (the film pays off and sets up more fucking plot threads than Avengers: Age Of Ultron!) Amanda receives a mystery envelope, John has visions of a lover from his past during a seizure and random cast members are introduced who aren’t destined to play off years down the line. The packed script has to sort through all this and carry out a standard Saw storyline and continue to build on Jigsaw’s legacy and it inevitably means that it all gets a little exhausting at times, especially when the typical, rug-pull climax has not one, not two, but three devastating revelations all stacked on top of each other. But to kick a torture porn movie in the ribs for trying to be too ambitious seems a little cruel, and while it certainly has it’s flaws, Saw III’s dedication to falling down it’s own rabbit hole still ranks it a severed head and shoulders above a lot of it’s peers.