Film Review: ‘Jigsaw’ Wants To Play Another Game

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He still wants to play a game with you. “Jigsaw” marks the return of the “Saw” franchise after over a half decade of dormancy. Now eight films deep, the series is launching again, hoping that it still has a place in the horror world. The landscape is much different, with PG-13 ghost stories once again making a killing. The blood-soaked carnage that the original shepherded in is not often found in multiplexes anymore. That’s the realm of smaller features these days. With a bit of an indie horror renaissance, the past few years going on, something like this a fascinating throwback. There aren’t many horror icons still haunting screens, so the Jigsaw Killer has an entry point.

“Jigsaw” is a smoother and less rushed production than what’s come before it. In the process, it improves on some aspects while fumbling others. In that regard, it fits in with the previous sequels. Your mileage may vary, though it’s hard to imagine a fan hating this. Likewise, it’s almost impossible to imagine a detractor being swayed. A specific audience is being catered to once again. The question is just if enough people still care?

The film continues to use a similar template to the one utilized in most of the prior outings. A game or test is being conducted with multiple contestants/victims, all while the police try to figure out who is carrying on the killer’s legacy. A decade has passed since the events of the previous “Saw” films. John Kramer (Tobin Bell), the Jigsaw Killer, is long dead, and a weary city has moved on from his deadly games. Then, dead bodies begin popping up. They each met gruesome endings and have jigsaw puzzle pieces cut out. That used to mean only one thing, but Kramer has been dead for ten years.

Detective Keith Hunt (Clé Bennett) and Detective Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) are on the case, though at square one. Working with coroner Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore) and his assistant Eleanor Bonneville (Hannah Emily Anderson), they find DNA evidence pointing to…you guessed it, Jigsaw. That’s impossible, leading fingers to be pointed and distrust among everyone. The more bodies the find, the more it seems like someone is taunting them.

At the same time, we see a game going on. Either Kramer is back from the dead or a disciple is carrying on his legacy, but for whatever reason, more people are being tested. Anna (Laura Vandervoort), Carly (Brittany Allen), Mitch (Mandela Van Peebles), and Ryan (Paul Braunstein) are trying to survive, all while trying to figure out why they’ve been chosen. Will they learn to cherish their lives? Will any survive? Who is being all of this? If you don’t know the answers, you don’t know “Saw”.

Fans come to a “Saw” flick for the traps. They’re closer to cast members than the actual actors and actresses. “Jigsaw” has some of the weaker traps yet, though for what it’s worth, there’s at least one gory delight. In a bit of a surprise, the police procedural aspect is handled with more care than usual. It’ll never be mistaken for “Prisoners,” but it’s not complete throwaway jargon either. Go figure.

Cast-wise, you’re getting standard horror movie overacting here. How Tobin Bell shows up is best left for you to discover, but he slips into the character like no time has passed at all. Bell brings gravitas to the role, unlike anyone else here. Clé Bennett and Callum Keith Rennie are generic cops, while Hannah Emily Anderson and Matt Passmore just feel out of place. They’re huge parts of the story, but they don’t feel organic to the series like Bennett and Rennie do, even if they don’t leave a mark. Anderson at least has a fun spunk to her, which is rare to find in the sequels. The game players Brittany Allen, Paul Braunstein, Mandela Van Peebles, and Laura Vandervoort are forgettable, at best. Also on hand is Josiah Black, among others, but you know you’re here for Bell. Plus, the aforementioned traps.

Directors Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig are underrated genre filmmakers. Their foray here into Hollywood brings a slight gloss to this franchise, though it’s a workmanlike effort overall by them. There’s less style on display than usual, which is surprising considering how visual their previous work has been. In true “Saw” fashion, minus the original, the script is on the sloppy side. Scribes Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg respect the series, almost to a fault. Logic and plot holes crop up, as does both a reveal of time being depicted out of order, as well as a final twist. Goldfinger and Stolberg deserve credit for a solid twist, one worthy of what’s come before. That aspect of the movie had admirable thought put into it.

Compared to the other films in the franchise, this is middle of the road stuff. Of course, it can’t reach the heights of the first one, which launched a sub-genre and featured some shocking originality. Likewise, it doesn’t fall into the lesser outings’ trap of creating the unnecessarily obtuse backstory. Interestingly, one of the through lines for “Jigsaw” to the rest of the series is editor Kevin Greutert. Greutert actually directed the prior two installments, and even more intriguingly, little of the jump cuts remain. Here, you can actually see what’s going on at all times.

Hardcore fans of “Saw” will enjoy what’s on display here with “Jigsaw”. It won’t convert many newcomers, though it’s the most accessible outing since the first one. If you’re inclined to like the franchise, add a half star to this review. If it’s just torture porn to you, take at least half of one off. As it stands, it’s hard to offer a recommendation because of how specific the audience is. This humble writer is a fan of the movies and was satisfied by the effort. If you’re in the same boat, head to the theater and enjoy. It’s almost Halloween, so once again, it must be “Saw”!

“Jigsaw” is distributed by Lionsgate and opens in theaters on October 27.

GRADE: (★★½)