“How are you still alive?” That’s a dirty cop, with a laser slicer locked around his neck, shouting at Jigsaw, née John Kramer (Tobin Bell), the serial killer who organizes his Rube Goldberg torture games like little parochial-school lessons of limb-severing pain. (If you’re a sinner — and who isn’t? — you’re going to pay.) A viewer may well be tempted to ask the same question of the “Saw” franchise: After seven movies’ worth of heart-in-the-throat horror (yes, I mean that literally), does this series even have a pulse?
The last time we checked, at the end of “Saw 3D” (2010), the seventh and “final” chapter of the series, Jigsaw was most definitely dead (he had cancer). This means that “Jigsaw,” the first “Saw” film since then, has two key questions to answer: How, if at all, did its maniac mascot survive? (Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.) And is there any body part left for the franchise to mangle in a new way? Of course there isn’t! But in the eyes of a true “Saw” fan, does it matter?
“Jigsaw” should have been called “Saw: Back in Business.” Directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, the German-born Australian brothers who made “Daybreakers,” the movie has a garishly rote machine-tooled butcher-shop dismember-by-numbers inevitability. For 92 minutes, it more or less succeeds in sawing through your boredom, slicing and dicing with a glum explicitness that raises the occasional tingle of gross-out suspense but no longer carries any kick of true shock value.
The film opens, as any “Saw” movie must, in an intensely art-directed enclosed space, with its human guinea pigs trapped, shackled, and terrified. In this case, there are five of them, each with his or her head encased in a metal bucket, and long chains leading them to a wall that’s studded with circular saws. As the chains pull them all toward the wall, they seem headed toward certain shredding, until someone figures out the game — allow yourself to get cut, just a wee bit, and you’ll be saved. Four of them follow the advice, but the fellow on the end does not. He winds up on the autopsy table, where the movie gives us more surgical glimpses than you would have thought possible of a head that’s been sliced in two, like a melon, right above the lower jaw.
This is major icky Guignol stuff (in other words, for a “Saw” fan: a pretty good laugh), and the merriment is only compounded by the fact that the autopsy is being conducted by the world’s two sexiest pathologists, both of whom are presented by the movie as potential villainous masterminds: Jigsaw-believers-turned-copycat-killers.
Logan (Matt Passmore) is all friendly, shaggy-blond, and Chris Pratt-like, but he’s an Iraq War veteran who was tortured in Fallujah, so he’s got a theoretical link to the “Saw” games. As for his physician partner, Eleanor (Hannah Emily Anderson), she’s a redhead flirt who looks far too happy in her work, and it turns out that she’s got a major obsession with Jigsaw. The cops uncover her visits to a site on the deep web devoted to John Kramer, and when she takes Logan to a space where she has stashed her collection of exotic torture devices, she beams with pride, like the world’s most extreme dominatrix.
Jigsaw appears to be very much alive. He shows up in classic form — as a harlequin marionette on a bicycle, with glowing red eyes — and we hear his voice on taped messages, in which he tells the four remaining victims what to do next, but mostly hectors them for the awful lives they’ve led. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Tobin Bell is in the movie, so let me say, without ruining the mystery, that he’s in vintage form, like L.A.’s creepiest cult guru, devoted to the lessons his unspeakable tortures are going to impart. (He’s like Freddy Krueger crossed with Leonard Cohen.) The cleverest thing about the “Saw” films is the way they hoodwink you into thinking he’s providing a public service.
But, of course, what these films really tap into is a kind of jaded rage; they jack up the fear factor for audiences who’ve come to regard empathy as a snowflake emotion. In “Jigsaw,” the victims, enduring their ritual mayhem, aren’t just paying for their own sins: a woman who snatched purses and left a victim without life-saving medicine; a dude who knowingly sold a motorcycle with faulty brakes; a mother driven so crazy by her baby crying that she…well, let’s not spoil the preposterousness of that one.
Most of them are given the option of mangling themselves to save someone else, like the guy who elects to get his lower leg sliced off by wires (an idea lifted from “Audition”) to give respite to his comrades, who are being buried alive in a grain elevator…as well as being rained down upon by saws and knives. The “Saw” genre was originally dubbed “torture porn.” But at this point a more accurate description might just be “overkill.”