JIGSAW. Matt Passmore, Callum Keith Rennie, Clé Bennett, Hannah Emily Anderson. Directed by Michael and Peter Spierig. 92 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong themes and strong horror violence).
‘Jigsaw’ is the eighth film in the ‘Saw’ franchise, a series of gory, low-budget horror films originated by Australian filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannell in 2004. The ‘Saw’ films follow the crimes of serial killer John Kramer, a.k.a. Jigsaw, played by the eminently creepy Tobin Bell, as well as a handful of his apprentices and copycat murderers. Jigsaw’s modus operandi is to place his victims in a series of sick tests, in which they’re forced to do awful things to themselves or others to avoid a grisly fate. Over the years, very few of the people Jigsaw has locked in one of his traps have emerged from the other side. I think the same can be said of the franchise. ‘Jigsaw’ was intended to be a return to form of sorts for the ailing ‘Saw’ films, but it’s preposterously dim, uncreative and not especially scary. One for the die-hard fans at best.
The narrative switches regularly between two plots. In the first, detectives Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie, picture a younger John Malkovich with hair) and Hunt (Clé Bennett) are stunned by the appearance of bodies that bear the tell-tale signs of Kramer’s games, ten years after Kramer was himself killed. Halloran is a bit of a hothead, whose impulsive behaviour has seen several perps walk away with their charges dropped. While Halloran is a walking cliché, Hunt isn’t given enough character development to be called even that. As more victims arrive, impossibly good-looking morgue physicians Logan (Matt Passmore) and Eleanor (Hannah Emily Anderson) are dragged into their investigation, first as the attending forensic specialists and then as the sole names in the absurdly slim list of suspects. Logan is an Iraq War veteran, and served with Detective Hunt before returning stateside. Eleanor is a Jigsaw fangirl who keeps a storage space stocked with recreations of Kramer’s most famous traps – forget Christian Grey’s “Red Room of Pain”, this is more a “Red Warehouse”. The screenplay, written by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger, is frustratingly daft. This half of the plot plays out more like a board game than an actual criminal investigation (limited to four players, everyone takes a turn as the prime suspect etc.), and seems more concerned with laying down twists than making sense. There are a couple of good one liners, but for every decent gag there are a dozen more unnatural and wooden lines that elicit pained groans.
In the second plot, five strangers wake in an abandoned barn rigged with traps. This is the part of the film that bloodthirsty fans will have paid to see. In the first trial, the unlucky players are dragged by chains around their necks towards a wall covered in spinning saw blades. Kramer’s voice (provided by the still-creepy Tobin Bell) plays over speakers, telling them that they are all guilty of some crime that they will have to confess, and that a blood sacrifice will set them free. Four out of the five victims realise the literal solution “hidden” in his words, and cut themselves slightly on the blades to release their chains. The fifth appears to not be so lucky.
The four survivors are Anna (Laura Vandervoort), Ryan (Paul Braunstein), Mitch (Mandela Van Peebles), and Carly (Brittany Allen). Don’t worry about learning names or backstories or anything, because they’re largely onscreen to bleed and suffer. I’ve never been a fan of the label ‘torture porn’, which was developed to describe the gory horror films that dominated the early 2000s like ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel’, which relied heavily on human pain. Unfortunately, I’m starting to come around to the applicability of the phrase; ‘Jigsaw’ doesn’t really trade in interesting characters or noteworthy performances (although credit where credit is due, Paul Braunstein makes Ryan, the obnoxious loudmouth of the group, more likable than he has any right to be). Instead, in each of the subsequent tests, a predictable pattern plays out, wherein one of the characters is either given an impossible task to complete or misses a painfully transparent clue in Kramer’s patter, before being dispatched in a blood-soaked fashion. Australian directors Peter and Michael Spierig, who made the exceptional time-travel film ‘Predestination’, sadly don’t bring anything new to the ‘Saw’ formula. It’s competently made – everything’s in focus and the bloody effects sell the violence – but it’s never genuinely scary nor compelling.
Rather appropriately for a film about confessions, I have several of my own to make. The first is that, before ‘Jigsaw’, I’d only seen ‘Saw III’. I came across while I was still in high school, and my prevailing memory of that experience was of a particularly gruesome trap, in which a character was slowly drowned in the eviscerated carcasses of dozens of pigs. It was unpleasant to say the least. As such, my expectations for ‘Jigsaw’ were low. Secondly, I must say that, not initially expecting to review this film, I read another publication’s spoiler-dense review of ‘Jigsaw’ before I saw the film. As such, I was primed for every preposterous twist that the narrative managed to pack in. As expected, these didn’t have the impact on me that the filmmakers were probably hoping for, but even as I sat there watching, I was actively characterising the developments into two categories: obvious or stupid. Eleanor’s revealing of her warehouse to Logan after barely suppressing her excitement every time Kramer’s name was mentioned – obvious. The notion that the copycat could somehow replace Kramer’s buried body with another person’s corpse completely unnoticed during a media storm surrounding Kramer’s possible return from the dead – stupid.
This jigsaw is definitely short a few pieces.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 2.