Thursday, 23 November 2006

Saw 3 (2006)

If you’ve been to the old Haw Par Villa, before it was redone as a tourist attraction with perky piped music and rendered mostly harmless, you would remember a certain attraction called The 10 Courts of Hell, a series of elaborate dioramas in a grotto depicting the horrific tortures one would have to endure in the afterlife, tortures that were crafted to suit the victim’s sins when they were living mortals. Or perhaps you remember Franz Kafka’s In The Penal Colony, a short story about an elegant execution device that metes out a punishment on the body of each criminal that is uniquely and most appropriately suited to the nature of their crime. Having read Bradley Denton’s black comedy Blackburn as a youth, I have always been waiting for someone to a movie about a vigilante killer who gives his victims – nasty people, not innocents at all – a punishment that fits their crime perfectly.

That movie turned out to be Se7en, of course. The Saw trilogy, on the surface, seems to be about the same thing, with a slight twist. Jigsaw, the serial killer, puts his victims in elaborate snare traps and other deadly devices that remind them of the ‘crimes’ they had committed, and challenge them to free themselves from those devices through an act of sacrificial self-mutilation. Ah, the joys of redemptive suffering, pain therapy, and a punishment fitting the crime!

Except that’s not even the case in any of the Saw films, and especially not Saw III, the closing film of the trilogy. There’s something to be said about a killer who devices fitting punishments for his victims, and then there’s something else to be said when a killer decides that being too detached from one’s emotions, withdrawing from society, feeling depressed, being too professional at work and other related ills are somehow crimes worth punishing. I’d call it a very flawed premise for a serial killer. Jigsaw’s horrific punishments for his victims are clearly excessive and don’t actually fit their ‘crimes’ at all, which adds to my annoyance with this movie. Clearly, if you have a setup like this, it might help if the movie is about the complete psychosis of the serial killer – his moral and ethical universe is something that cannot be taken seriously, and a good script would have to involve a challenge to the killer’s justification and outlook.

Instead of delivering on this challenge in the final part of the Saw trilogy, the scriptwriters pile on even more moralising and couch therapy style musings from Jigsaw, who is now on his deathbed, planning his final set of tests, and hoping that his understudy and possible successor Amanda Young has imbibed enough of his wisdom and philosophy to take over the reins of terror on his passing. The effect of the deeper moralising tone in Saw III doesn’t make the movie “deeper” - it just highlights again the problem with the premise, with the unfortunate fact that Jigsaw’s vigilante justice involves punishments that rarely fit the crime, and victims that aren’t at all evil, mean, or deserving of such brutal torture.

And yes, there is much pain, torture, and gore in the final movie, so much so that it has garnered an even higher censorship rating, even in the USA. That doesn’t help anything at all, but just again points out the flaws in the premise – where is the punishment that really fits the crime? Saw III doesn’t have the jokey feel of the first Saw, the mean victims of the second Saw, and ends up feeling more like a snuff video for guro fans. That’s a terrible mistake, since the point of any decent slasher flick is to have the audience empathise with either the vigilante killer, the vigilante cop, or the victims. There isn’t a single character in Saw III that can move a heart: not the dying Jigsaw, and not any of his victims – who surprising should evoke some sympathy due to the completely disproportionate suffering they go through. I guess we can blame the scriptwriters.

As for the gore and the escalation of horrific visual content, it seems that even the scriptwriters have run out of anything innovative. The exploding neck chain is back, and so is the leg clamp with the saw. The most visceral scenes in this movie are nothing new: James Caan had his foot hobbled by Kathy Bates in Misery decades ago, and we’ve watched trepanation performed on at least one episode on Chicago Hope or ER, Hannibal, and one episode of Rome on HBO/BBC.

There’s lots of gore, but all the pain and suffering is unjustified and makes no narrative sense at all. Because of this, Saw III is not horrific and cannot evoke any sense of horror. What it does evoke is a sense of revulsion and pity, at how a good premise is eventually defeated because of faulty conceptualisation, poor execution, and a focus on all the wrong things.

First published at incinemas on 30 November 2006

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