A Sentimental Education: Saw 6

One of the big axioms of storytelling is that you know a character best by the decisions he or she makes under extreme circumstances. It’s why you push your characters out into the street, see how they react when traffic’s slamming in from all sides at once. Granted, you can rig your story so that it’s all kitchen sink drama, low-key enough that ‘extreme circumstances’ gets redefined as a standoff about who’s going to answer a ringing phone, but that kind of slow-handed approach, yeah, it takes a while, right? And Saw VI here, it clocks in at a cool ninety minutes, including credits, and has just a host of characters, meaning that, first, there’ll be no going slow here, and, second, in lieu of taking time to ‘know’ these characters, we’ll just jump straight into the extremest circumstances possible, know those characters immediately. Some of them from the inside-out, yeah. Okay: most of them.

But we’d have it no other way either, of course.

At a certain point in a franchise’s evolution, it ceases to be judged against other horror movies, is instead judged by how well it sticks to the rules it’s already established.

For the Saw series, I mean, what we expect are surprise returns (‘what, you’re not dead?’), hidden identities (‘but, but, you were in there with us’), flashbacks that flay deeper and deeper into previous installments with a shamelessness that would make Lost blush, a distinct videogame feel (this room, make a choice, watch the clock, live or die), and then what we see in all the trailers and posters: gore galore and even better mousetraps than last time around.

More than that, though, any Saw-installment now has to satisfy those expectations in such a way that things don’t feel repetitive. Which is the real trick, especially since, as Randy tells us in Scream, each sequel has to be bloodier than the last, a bell Saw 3 pretty much already rang.

Or so we thought.

That first scene this time around—so short it doesn’t even qualify as a sequence, I don’t think—I propose that it’s the most intense we’ve seen from the Saw series so far. Which is saying something. It’s beautiful, wonderful, Se7en-ish; you laugh and cringe and look through your fingers anyway, and that’s exactly how the best horror works.

And that opening scene, in keeping with the other installments, it does that Halloween 2 shuffle, picking up exactly where the last left off. It’s good for continuity, sure, but even more, it’s thrilling because it suggests that maybe soon—it already happening somewhere?—some theatre’s going to do an all night showing of the whole series, like one big twelve-hour movie. Or longer, yeah. Saw’s hardly over, I mean.

However—and this is ramping off Ebert’s review of Irreversible—is this latest instance of torture porn really ‘porn,’ defined as a series of lavish set-pieces (here, killings) strung together by some story nobody really cares about, some story that’s only there as excuse for the set-pieces?

It’s a hard call, with Saw. Just like with conventional porn, you are there specifically for those kill-scenes, yes. But wasn’t the first Friday the 13th arranged the same way, pretty much? A showcase for Savini, more or less. But that’s to take nothing away from it either.

Neither do I want to malign Saw, here. Yeah, we’re there for those kill scenes, to see people just opened up in every way we can think of and a few we never would have thought of, but Saw’s very consciously trying to layer as much story in as possible. Granted, you can ignore it if you want and still get a lot of the effect—and, really, who can keep up with it all, right?—but still, it’s there, and is continuous if not always completely fair.

The problem, though, for me anyway, is the manner in which Saw gets all that story in: hokey flashbacks. I mean, in slashers, say, there’s usually that cascade at the end, where final girl X cues in to what’s happening and visually flips back through all the clues in the story that were trying to telling her this was the killer all along. And we usually accept that device, so long as it synchs up with the sudden realization we’re also feeling at the moment; the flashback series then is just visual confirmation, maybe even makes us feel smart, or, if we already guessed everything, smarmy, anyway.

Saw, though, it doesn’t use its own past in that way. No, instead Saw falls back on the CSI method, where whenever a character says X in a particularly suggestive way, we get the ‘dramatization.’ Which, yes, this is definitely a way to get said information across—is more viscerally engaging than somebody just boringly telling the story, says all the producers—but the effect of it is that, instead of letting us think for ourselves, it’s doing all the thinking for us. And that’s very dangerous, especially in horror, which is something we need to be completely invested in, need to be leaning into even though we really really know we shouldn’t be. To say it shorter, the way Saw handles its backmatter, it’s keeping the movie on the screen, keeping us in our seats, finally forcing a distance which can still revolt us, sure, but probably can’t really scare us.

Make sense?

Or, to go back to crime drama on television, compare Law & Order and CSI. In the first, they never, absolutely never confirm or deny a claim by going to some blue-tinted past, while in the second you the reader of this ‘text’ aren’t at all involved in deciding whether this claim is true or not—you’re not involved because it’s all there on-screen. Granted, the aims of the two shows are somewhat different, one teasing apart our sense of justice by way of hot topic issues, the other kind of moralizing that our technological progress is making it hard out there for a bad guy, but still, I hope you can agree that the mode of storytelling in Law & Order is fundamentally more respectful of our intelligence than the mode used for CSI, and, to get back to the horror here, the Saw series.

But is that really Saw’s fault either?

Take the first one, say: in it, the backmatter wasn’t used as emphatically to tell us what we should think here (because there hardly was any backmatter then, yeah). But then there was a sequel, and another, and another, and Saw started to fall victim to the same dynamic that finally pulled Jason and Freddy down: each time now, we know who that is behind the mask. What this does, basically, and in spite of the fact that all the slasher bells are being rung on cue, is keep these sequels from being slashers, making them instead into monster movies, where, say, there’s this giant crocodile, and it’s eating everybody. Run, run.

But, but.

Though Friday the 13th toyed with putting other people behind the mask—to no great effect, alas—and Halloween flirted with no-Michael, the Saw dynamic is a little different here. Jigsaw isn’t the same as Jason. No, he’s more like the demon in Fallen, say, jumping from host to host, infecting the next down the line, keeping us guessing (somewhat) who the killer here is, or might be. Or, if not really keeping us guessing, then telling us who it is over and over but then, before that information can settle there’s blood all over the lens again and we’ve forgotten what we thought we knew.

In that way does it avoid being a monster movie?

Maybe, yeah. A clever move, and from a series people don’t expect cleverness from, except insofar as contraptions are concerned. Or, clever for a series that, as near as I can tell, seems to have pretty much taken that closing scene from Mad Max—guy chained to an about-to-explode car, given a saw to save himself with—and made it into six movies. So far. As for the sure-to-be seventh, the title I propose is “Gideon’s Way,� Gideon of course being Jigsaw’s killed-in-utero son. Because, while it is clever to have the Jigsaw persona hopscotching from person to person, still, it’s about to get old, I suspect. We need a new element now, can’t keep digging into the past much longer.

My only real complaint, then?

The audience.

I slid into the theatre, first show on opening day, and thought I was in the wrong place at first: there was just one guy up there. For a horror movie a week before Halloween. For a franchise that, with the third installment on opening day (this was in Austin), the capacity crowd actually stood up and clapped at the end.

At the theatre today, I stood there for a bit, looked up to the other audience member, said, “Just the two of us then, yeah?�

He nodded, kind of bummed about it too.

My earnest hope is that maybe everybody was in the next theatre down, catching Paranormal Activity, or at least at home with their new Drag Me To Hell DVD. Please. I don’t think my heart could take any other explanation.

boulder, co
23 October 2009

Author: SGJ