Slickly Entertaining "Jigsaw" Fumbles Finale

James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s 2004 film “Saw” may have birthed a franchise, but it was Darren Lynn Bousman’s “Saw II” that lent the series its trademark temporal trickery. Audiences kept coming back every October for seven years not for the geysers of gore, but the hilariously head-spinning timelines, the preposterous twists, and the intractable pull of a long dead serial killer. John Kramer aka Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) perished at the end of “Saw III” – an imaginative horror pic tarnished by extreme violence done exclusively to women and minorities – but kept up his twisted brand of vigilantism from beyond the grave via protégés for a further four films.

Seven years after series nadir “Saw 3D: The Final Chapter,” Jigsaw is back again with Tobin Bell firmly in tow. Bell’s work in “Jigsaw” is uncredited but it would be disingenuous to pretend the now 75-year-old actor doesn’t figure heavily into the film. He is, naturally, the star attraction.

The writing team of Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg set off the pic’s big Jigsaw trap right out of the gate, one that immediately sends local law enforcement into a mad scramble. As detectives Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) and Hunt (Clé Bennett) helpfully point out, Jigsaw has been dead for ten years. And yet, bodies are being dumped methodically with taunting notes attached, a new batch of the killer’s famous instructional tapes have been matched to Kramer’s voice, and his blood even appears under the fingernails of a victim.

The trangressors playing this round of the antagonist’s wicked Fincher-meets-Hasbro game are a predictably uncharismatic bunch (only Paul Braunstein’s Ryan makes an impact), a far cry from the central group of character actors that elevated both “Saw V” and “Saw VI.” But directors Michael and Peter Spierig seem in the know about their movie’s shortcomings. They keep things moving at a cheetah’s pace throughout, cutting between Jigsaw’s game and the world at large with ferocity, obviously delighting in a refreshingly modern visual aesthetic that the series never previously enjoyed.

A subplot involving two enigmatic forensic pathologists named Logan Nelson (Matthew Passmore) and Eleanor Bonneville (Hannah Emily Anderson) ends up a shockingly fun bit of nonsense, one of them generating understandable suspicion when it turns out that he or she is a Jigsaw superfan. Meanwhile, Jigsaw’s game keeps ramping up, promising another in a series-long line of breathtakingly silly reveals.

This is where the film falters; where it’s likely to lose a large chunk of its target audience. Unlike in previous sequels wherein the twists remained loyal to a certain internal logic, “Jigsaw” is the first to actually hinge on fooling viewers. It’s lying to us, and then lying about lying to us, all in service of a garish left turn that’s as unnecessary as it is unsatisfying. Whether Kramer is somehow alive or not, it’s obvious for the entirety of the film that he’s found himself yet another protégé. When that person is finally unveiled, it comes in a flop sweat, tasteless and guileless.

Considering that Lionsgate had seven years to refocus their flagship horror franchise, the whole of “Jigsaw” is puzzlingly undercooked. For over an hour it mostly seizes the opportunity to pivot out of torture porn and into thriller territory – of the previous seven films, only the original was remotely scary – but faceplants in the homestretch, passing the baton from Bell to a performer unequivocally light years less charismatic.

Bell could certainly return in future sequels, but the chance to reclaim the series for its biggest asset is wasted here. All the laser cutter collars in the world are no match for John Kramer, the one and only Jigsaw.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: October 27, 2017
Studio: Lionsgate
Directors: Peter Spierig, Michael Spierig
Screenwriters: Pete Goldberg, Josh Stolberg
Starring: Callum Keith Rennie, Clé Bennett, Matt Passmore, Hannah Emily Anderson, Laura Vandervoort, Mandela Van Peebles, Paul Braunstein
MPAA Rating: R (for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, and for language)