9:30am PT by Simon Abrams
Watching the 'Jigsaw' Twist Unfold Is an Existential Experience
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Jigsaw]
Jigsaw, the seventh sequel in the seemingly deathless Saw horror series, enters theaters with a lot of baggage. And, to be fair, co-directors Michael and Peter Spierig (Daybreakers, Predestination) and co-writers Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg (Piranha 3D, Sorority Row) do half-heartedly downplay some of the more tedious elements that have come to define the earlier Saw movies.
For starters, the "torture" aspect of the fatal death-trap "tests" that serial killer John "Jigsaw" Kramer (franchise staple Tobin Bell) puts his victims through is taken down several notches. Jigsaw features far fewer — and shorter — scenes of forgettable meat puppet characters screaming, groaning and crying after their bones are broken, limbs split or blood drained at a shockingly fast rate. There's also a significantly streamlined backstory here. All viewers really need to know to understand what's going on in Jigsaw is that John "Jigsaw" Kramer, an engineer who died from brain cancer ten years ago (according to this film), has resurfaced and he is now torturing and killing strangers again for the sake of meting out the kind of justice that the police or the legal justice system simply cannot. This comparatively tamped-down story is a remarkable change from the series' earlier entries, given how previous sequels frequently pause events just to cram in more flashbacks and expository dialogue (more on this shortly).
Still, Jigsaw is enjoyable despite its creators' best efforts because it is, at heart, a grand guignol-style melodrama in horror movie drag. Like the previous sequels, this one rewards and encourages viewers to recall events that were not only just revealed in the latest film, but also withheld until very late in the newest movie's plot. This is, in other words, another unsolvable puzzle, because Saw 1-8's creators also withheld significant pieces until you were ready to quit. Still, that frustration is part of what makes the Saw movies so fun. The films' makers have never played fair, but the aggressive way that Jigsaw's creators try to simultaneously piss you off, and draw you in is particularly exciting.
The first thing you should know before you see Jigsaw is that John Kramer died at the end of Saw III. That death was confirmed in Saw IV, which begins with a thorough autopsy of Kramer's body. This is funny since Jigsaw's winningly bonkers twist ending is the crux of the film. There are two subplots in the movie, and they have a single mutual concern: how is John Kramer alive and well enough to torture people in an undisclosed barn(??), and what will Detective Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) and his medical examiner colleagues Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore), and Eleanor Bonneville (Hannah Emily Anderson) do to stop somebody who's already dead? The solution to both questions is both more obvious than you think, and flat-out too hard to imagine. You will pull your hair out trying to figure out what's going on, but just know that you probably get the "how," even if you'll never be able to anticipate the "why." Again: these guys play dirty pool, so while they probably flatter themselves into thinking that they're just really good at misdirecting viewers, they're most charming when they're brazenly chucking all plausibility out the window with oodles of gob-smackingly illogical twists.
Also, Jigsaw is something of a return to form for the seven-years-dormant film series since the kind of unfathomable twist ending that closes out the best and/or most frustrating Saws. Like the makers of the earlier Saw movies, Jigsaw's creators seem to delight in trying to gaslight you. Their bullying tendency of yanking the wool over viewers' eyes hails from the first sequel: the makers of Saw II revived Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith), a minor character in Saw, for the sake of supporting a twist that, again, could not be anticipated because of a sheer lack of information (more on this twist below).
Then, in Saw III, a key relationship that ties together two timelines is hidden from viewers until the last minute: Lynn (Bahar Soomekh), the doctor Jigsaw forces to operate on his brain tumor, is apparently the wife of Jeff (Angus Macfadyen), the man that John and Amanda kidnap and torture in the film's second timeline. We only learn that Jeff and Lynn husband are married — let alone married to each other — when Jeff comes barreling through a doorway, and Amanda murders his wife....which prompts him to murder Amanda. As John knew he would!
Saw IV climaxes with the revelation that the events of Saw IV and Saw III are more closely related than even the most clever viewer could guess without devouring a suspiciously detailed Wikipedia plot synopsis. Meaning: Saw IV was takes place at the same time as the events of Saw III, a revelation that's only unveiled when Saw IV ends in the exact same location, and at the exact same time as Saw III. There are no prior hints that will allow you to come to this conclusion, it just happens.
Saw V doesn't have a good twist ending; it's really more of a dopey reversal of fortunes. At the end of that film, good cop Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson) traps bad cop/Jigsaw wannabe Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) in a glass coffin...but it turns out that the coffin is the only safe spot in an elaborate Star Wars garbage compactor-style death trap that winds up crushing Strahm to, well, death.
Fast-forward to Saw VI, where the backstory of the previous Saw films is heavily — and hastily! — rewritten throughout. Turns out that John's widow Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), the owner of Jigsaw's "Tuck pig farm," was warned about Mark in a living will that John left for her. There is no mention of a will in any of the other films. But bear with us: in the will John asks Jill to make Mark test several people. The last man that Jill and Mark are supposed to "test" is Mark.
Finally, Saw: The Final Chapter reveals that there's more than one killer: turns out that Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), the truant oncologist that John "tested" in the first Saw, is still alive. And he's apparently a member of the Brotherhood of Saw, a cult that attacks and murders people (Mark, in this case) in the name of John Kramer. Bear in mind, Dr. Gordon is not mentioned in any of the Saw sequels until Saw: The Final Chapter. But apparently he's been spending the years between Saw and Saw: The Final Chapter changing his life, and becoming won over by John Kramer and his special brand of life-changing torture. Also, the Brotherhood of Saw isn't even name-checked in Jigsaw (more on this soon).
With this in mind, Jigsaw's big twist feels like a declaration of intent. This movie's makers seem determined to acknowledge and celebrate earlier films' heavy reliance on soap opera-worthy details that are typically introduced on a strict need-to-know basis. The main difference between Jigsaw and earlier sequels is that Jigsaw's plot often seems to be only negligibly related to earlier Saw films. Yes, they do acknowledge that John Kramer died. And characters do briefly (and belatedly) acknowledge the gruesome comically thorough autopsy that kicks off Saw IV. But there is only a passing reference to Jill. And at no point do the filmmakers bother to recall that there have been at least three other people acting in Jigsaw's name: Mark, of Saws III-The Final Chapter; Amanda, of Saws I-III; and the Brotherhood of Saw, of Saw: The Final Chapter.
You might think that Jigsaw's creators might invest in that extensive backstory considering how much time was spent building it up in previous sequels. Jigsaw is probably not called Saw VIII for a reason, possibly to invite first-time viewers who don't care about the death and repeatedly exhumed life of John Kramer. But each of the earlier sequels has spent time doubling back over earlier events in a compelling, albeit highly strained attempt at giving more heft to John's story. This series is so convoluted that it stops being exasperating and soon becomes compulsively riveting.
Where to even begin synopsizing the earlier films? John had brain cancer and trained Amanda to be his successor (revealed in Saw II). But Amanda was too angry (!!), and she failed a "test" John made for her at the end of Saw III. So John/Jigsaw died, and so did Amanda. But apparently John was also aware of Mark, a second would-be successor that makes a brief appearance in Saw III, but is only revealed to be a Jigsaw wannabe in Saw IV. We also learn about John's failed marriage with Jill starting in Saw III and ending in Saw: The Final Chapter. We learn about her slammed-door-on-baby-bump-induced miscarriage in Saw IV. And we see her receive John's living will from his lawyer in Saw VI (this is also when we learn that Mark and Jill were working together at one point, though they fall out by film's end). And in Saw: The Final Chapter, we come full circle with the return of Dr. Gordon.
None of that seems to matter in Jigsaw, though some new plot points are inevitably added to this brazenly over-crowded narrative. And if you go into the theater knowing that the makers of this film are willfully ignoring this much backstory, it will make the existential experience of watching Jigsaw that much more entertaining.
At the end of Jigsaw, it's revealed that the barn torture subplot took place ten years before the detective subplot. This is essentially the same twist that ended Saw II: crooked cop Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) discovers that the Jigsaw "games" he's investigating happened in the past, and that John was using VHS tapes of closed-circuit security footage to make him think they were unfolding in real time. Likewise, in Jigsaw's police investigation timeline, Detective Halloran, a very crooked cop, has been lured into investigating these crimes by Logan, who is pretending to be John. The main difference between Saw II and Jigsaw's twists is that Logan tricked Halloran into thinking Kramer was still alive by manipulating old voice recordings that John made, and re-arranging them so that they sound like instructions for a new series of "games."
Logan was also apparently a Jigsaw protege this whole time, even though John never even mentions another pre-Amanda protege until this film. But why does Logan care about John's legacy as Jigsaw? Apparently, Logan was once a hospital orderly who accidentally mislabeled John's medical X-rays, thereby preventing him from getting timely treatment for his fatal brain tumor. Bear in mind: there is no mention of an orderly-related X-ray mishap in any Saw movie prior to Jigsaw. And better yet: Logan's reasons for torturing Halloran are equally baffling. Sure, Halloran is a dirty cop, but Logan's out to get him because...Halloran is responsible for his wife's death. Even though we never learn that Logan is a widow, or that a crime had been committed against him until film's end. Again: you cannot solve this puzzle, so you might as well lean into its agonizing pleasures.
The best part about all of these haphazard twists is that John judges his acolytes based on whether or not their "tests" are fair to their victims. These movies are obsessed with the notion of impartial justice, but they themselves never play fair with viewers. Amanda wants to punish her subjects too much, so she rigs her tests so that even winners can't really escape. This displeases John, and leads him to test her in Saw III. And Mark's traps are equally rigged, so John tests him...from beyond the grave, and using his widow. So it stands to reason that Logan doesn't play fair with his traps: the only survivor of the barn massacre is left to die. And Halloran is ultimately murdered after passing his "test." The Saw movies are wildly inconsistent in most every other regard, but they are alike in one respect: none of them abide by the rules that they profess to care so much about.
The best way to know if you're going to enjoy this film is to try to imagine that you're watching a really bad, but really expressive magician perform a complicated trick. The magician is, again, bad. So he keeps threatening to lose you with every vain attempt he makes at revealing things, and/or diverting your attention. But he keeps pulling weird stuff out of thin air, like bloody saw blades, a plunger needle with hydroflauric acid, piano wire death traps with a simple lever mechanism, and some random workbench implements too.
Also, this magician's not content with staying on stage. He's in the aisles, and grabbing you by the lapels as he tells you stories that give significance to these improvised murder weapons, I mean magical props. The magician's stories are strange, because they're about tenuously related events, like his nephew's motorcycle accident, a fatal purse-snatching, an infant’s death, and many other odd goings-on.
Finally, when he gets to the climax of his bit, the magician takes the stage again, and yells at the crowd for ten straight minutes. He's trying desperately to explain how everything he just showed you is in fact related, even though he's also inadvertently revealing that he was hiding some crucial details until this show-stopper finale. So he’s ranting, and screaming, and suddenly, bam: an explosion of activity that kind of makes sense, but not really. Are you not entertained?
Look, the Saw movies’ interstitial twists are definitely confusing and sometimes even mildly irritating. But by this point, the magician is seriously raving, like an unhinged, and less talented Ricky Jay. Or if comedian Norm MacDonald stopped telling meandering shaggy dog jokes, and took up baffling Crispin-Glover-meets-Penn-and-Teller outsider art.
You now have a choice. Either embrace the mystery, scratch your head, and enjoy the spectacle of some of the least chill artists trying to keep their cool long enough to unleash what is arguably the sturm-and-drang-iest finale of the Saw series to date. Or you can walk out angry, and convinced that the Saw movies are just super-obnoxious and tiresome. Either choice makes sense. But: if you like campy movies, and you don't mind a fair amount of violence, Jigsaw may be for you.