So exactly how confident are the makers of the “Saw” franchise that their enterprise has Freddy’s kind of longevity? Here’s how: “Saw IV” begins with the now-dead Jigsaw lying on an autopsy table, his brain removed and his stomach contents emptied — and he’s still in charge, with more of his “games” to play, and the film ends with more games promised. Lionsgate’s latest cash cow easily won the weekend B.O. and became the fall’s top opener with $32.1 million, ensuring many more “Saws” to come.
More than before, regular helmer Darren Lynn Bousman (who directed “Saw II” and “III”) relies on considerable flashback material — care of scripters Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan — to permit Jigsaw, aka John (Tobin Bell), to dominate the gory and moralistic proceedings. Jigsaw’s motives and recent past are explained this time to an excessive degree, though the contorted efforts to fit the explanation into the action are hardly worth the labor.
As always, things pick up right where the previous pic left off. Det. Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) arrives at the scene of Jigsaw’s torture-death of cop Kerry (Dina Meyer) — yet another dead associate for Rigg (Lyriq Bent), who’s become obsessed with the victims around him and his inability to save lives.
Meanwhile, pic drops in on the torture of Rigg’s partner, Eric (Donnie Wahlberg, now a “Saw” vet), who’s been missing for six months — the exact timeframe for all the action in the franchise to date. Eric is chained in one of Jigsaw’s typical Rube Goldberg contraptions, his feet resting on a melting ice block, and who should be linked to him in an electric chair but … Hoffman.
Abducted by an apparent associate of Jigsaw’s, Rigg is drawn into the evil genius’ new game, which sends him on a trail of tortures, testing whether he’ll save a victim or let them make their own choice. These include a female thug whose ponytail is yanked through gears until she’s nearly scalped; a convicted, now-freed rapist who loses his limbs on a ghoulish hotel bed; and a husband and wife literally held together by giant arrows piercing both of their bodies.
If the pacing were ever less than breathless, it might give the viewer a chance to ponder the script meetings, which were surely consumed with how to come up with more disgusting devices from the foul recesses of Jigsaw’s imagination. Trying to understand it all are FBI agents Strahm (Scott Patterson) and Perez (Athena Karkanis), while Jill (Betsy Russell), Jigsaw/John’s ex, behaves in an oddly snotty fashion as she unwillingly explains what sent her former hubby over the edge.
Several flashbacks show Jigsaw when he was still just John, an engineer and developer whose efforts to support Jill’s free clinic and provide inner-city housing end only in misery. Further events are shown to catalyze John’s descent into his Jigsaw mentality, driven to teach people the ills of their ways.
Even by the standards of the recent “Saws,” which have enjoyed considerably larger budgets than the first pic, the new edition is more frenetically cut (by editors Kevin Greutert and Brett Sullivan), more dimly lit (by lenser David A. Armstrong), sweatier in terms of perfs by the grimly serious cast, more madly packed with micro-incidents and action, and more brazen in requiring suspension of disbelief. Just as Jigsaw tests his victims, the franchise’s own test will be whether such suspension can be maintained, or if matters lapse into a torture chamber of self-parody.