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United States, 2008
Directed By: David Hackl
Written By: Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan
Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson
Running Time: 88 minutes
Rated R for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, language and brief nudity.
Chances are, you already know if you’re going to see this movie or not. At this point in its run the Saw franchise is a known quantity, offering up no surprises, just new traps and barely coherent bits of moralizing. It has come to be a comfort food of sorts; that is, if you’re part of Leatherface’s family. That being said, let me put off judgment on the fifth film in this gruesome juggernaut for just a few moments and talk about the series in general.
Since the first film gained enough popularity to be talked about on the national scene it’s been slapped with the label “torture porn” and talked about as the harbinger of this new horror subgenre. To me, torture porn is a term that elicits a very specific response. If standard “porn” (or should it now be termed “sexual porn”?) has no purpose other than to bring us real (or realisitc) images of people copulating, then “torture porn” should have no pretenses with regard to character or plot, just hack, slash, thank you ma’am. When applied to Saw this has always felt a bit off. The film plays out more like a gory Twilight Zone episode than Faces of Death with a moral. (if you can dig that minor distinction) The blood is always deployed in the service of teaching a lesson, nor is it overly gratuitous. Of course the same could be said of the sex in a porn flick, but I doubt anyone has ever uttered the phrase, “There is just too much fornication in this pornographic film!” At any rate, I personally don’t buy the Saw movies as torture porn. It seems to me that the intent behind them is to deliver thrills along with a twist-filled storyline.
Now with the semantics of modern moviegoing out of the way, I have to point out that just because it’s not torture porn, doesn’t mean it’s any good. Just because the original intent is to thrill us with story, doesn’t mean its going to happen. There are two plotlines that we bounce back and forth between. The “A” plot is concerned with Scott Patterson as Agent Strahm tracking down the loose ends of the now-dead (but still getting a lot of screen time) Jigsaw (Tobin Bell). The “B” plot deals with a bunch of people involved in nefarious deeds who are learning a lesson about something or another. Ok, the B plot line is there just to pad the film, most of these people don’t even get names, nor flashbacks, which the Saw films hand out like sex in a porno (I knew I could find a cohesive theme for this review). The A plot is clearly where the meat was meant to lie; too bad that meat was torn off in some mildly ironic trap.
Both plots share a common weakness: old-fashioned bad filmmaking. Scenes were clearly reorganized in the hopes of making a coherent story, but instead we wind up with a villain who spends half of the film’s running time sitting in a parked car and an FBI agent who leaves his office 3 times in one evening. Besides basic logic, the filmmakers also fail with regards to Suspense Building 101. If a twist is supposed to come at the end of the movie, you can’t tip your hand early by showing us more than the character knows. The realization of their failure to comprehend earlier clues should come to the audience at the same time as the character, otherwise the twist lacks, well, a twist. It’s more of a “straight” at that point.
I have to admit much of my anticipation for the movie was based around getting to see Scott Patterson swear and get sprayed with blood. Both of these things were largely lacking from his most famous role as Luke on Gilmore Girls. Wherein, if I may be permitted an aside, he totally should have wound up married to Lorelai. Ahem, back to the subject at hand: I think he actually could have made a compelling go as a troubled rogue agent if only the script (and direction) would have allowed him to. Instead, every time Agent Strahm encounters a new clue he looks at it meaningfully for a moment, and then promptly announces its importance to the audience. This problem has been solved many times; voice-overs are widely hated, but one would have worked wonders here. In Man hunter, Michael Mann has William Petersen dictate his thoughts into a tape recorder; given the devices ubiquity in the Saw universe, this option would have fit like a glove (over a dismembered hand). By far the best option would seem to be TRUSTING YOUR AUDIENCE. If we see a picture, then see someone thinking, we know it’s important. Leave it at that. The filmmakers, however, decide to shove it down our throats. First we see a picture which connects two characters, then Strahm says (out loud, to himself) “The two of you worked together!” then we get a flashback, where, indeed the two of them do work together. The realization is barely shocking the first time; by the third or fourth time it happens, I was rooting for Strahm to get caught in one of Jigsaw’s traps just so he’ll stop telling us what he’s thinking every two minutes.
By the time the credits rolled, I had fallen in league with Jigsaw, another acolyte to carry on his twisted lessons. At this moment, I am desiging a device that can hold the director perfectly still whilst I show him Saw V repeatedly. To earn his freedom he only has to admit that he turned a perfectly good trashy flick into just another bad movie.