"If it's Halloween, it must be 'Saw.'" That's what the commercials have been trumpeting. And being as this is the sixth straight fall to play host to a "Saw" release, it's hard to argue with the facts. That message's recipients, however, will likely be sharply divided on its intentions: celebratory rallying cry or menacing threat of inevitability.
As with many horror icons before him, Jigsaw, the "Saw" films' scolding central figure, simply will not stay dead. But unlike his compatriots in terror, Jigsaw's immortality is purely theoretical -- he lives on in his ideas, in the hearts of those whose lives he's touched. In the beginning, the moral center of the "Saw" films gave them a bite that felt vital. Now though, with six films in the bag, it's more obvious than ever that any innovative juice the series once had has been wrung out. Frighteningly, what seems to have replaced it here is a broad populism with its vitriol aimed squarely at society's most heinous boogymen. Could Jigsaw be the anti-hero to unite an oppressed and mistreated populace?
John Kramer -- aka Jigsaw -- fancies himself a giver of life. By showing his victims its true value, he allows them to lead a more complete existence. That veneer of a moral center had begun to fade in earlier "Saw" films, but here it's as if it never existed at all. In the absence of the idealistic founder, Agent Hoffman, the heir revealed in "Saw V" and Jill, John's wife, set the wheels to a new "game" in motion by tracking down and trapping six individuals chosen by John before his death for "attitude adjustments." One of these targets is then made the focus, as he must wend his way through a labyrinthine, decaying building en route to his "salvation."
The "Saw" films have come to represent a mini genre cycle all their own. The first established a pattern that, while stretched in subsequent films, remains wholly intact here. As with any other genre film, that pattern is a strong part of the draw for fans and constitutes a great deal of their enjoyment of the "Saw" experience. In "Saw VI," the filmmakers have gone a step further in their effort to appeal to a wide audience by making Jigsaw's targets comically stereotypical villains ripped directly from today's headlines. The opening sequence features two mortgage brokers, responsible, Jigsaw informs viewers, of making predatory loans. Now it is they who must compete against one another to see who can cut off the biggest hunk of flesh. You can probably imagine what happens to the loser.
These two evil mortgage writers give way to a target so vile, so contemptuous, so devoid of human goodness it's a wonder Jigsaw gives him any chance of survival at all. This beast is, of course, an insurance company executive. This businessman makes his living by deciding who lives and who dies, so it only makes sense that Jigsaw forces him to make more life and death choices, only this time under extreme emotional duress. Like the caricatured mortgage officers before him, this executive is so one-sidedly drawn, an uninformed viewer would have to be forgiven for mistaking him for an outright criminal. After all his posturing and lecturing about the evils of health insurance, it's a surprise Jigsaw doesn't track down other present day monsters: the gutless politician or spineless investment banker or even the heartless quant, fresh off developing some fancy new -- and evil -- financial instrument.
Audiences will be expected to hoot and hollar as "Saw VI" revels in making the smarmy insurer suffer, but where in previous films Jigsaw's moral absolutism focused primarily on saving (or maiming) the troubled, here he's all about punishment. The insurer, having cut John off from potentially life saving (and incredibly expensive) treatment, is the key focus, but unlike in the past, there are many seemingly innocent people who must pay the price to be part of this game. Several times Jigsaw makes use of innocent or at worst tangentially guilty people from the insurer's life and business to send his message to the executive. The irony is that in making this powerful man pay, it's the little people Jigsaw seemingly cares about who end up on the losing side of the game -- a janitor, a young college grad, a lawyer. Well, the last one probably deserved it...
These wholly innocent bystanders are merely one symptom of a series that has officially lost its way. The arcane, overwrought plotting that had been a staple of "Saw," here feels far more forced. What twists do remain are incredibly telegraphed. And as with "V," the story has begun to cannibalize itself to the point of satire. Flashbacks fill in the necessary details, but in such broad strokes that what emotion may have once existed around Jigsaw and these characters' motivations now is but a whiff.
It's Halloween, and that means it's "Saw," but that apparently does not mean that one should expect much entertainment. The "Saw" films have been as lucrative as any horror franchise in history, and here the clear intention was to go for maximum profit. Fans of the series -- of which there were many in this reviewer's theater -- should leave feeling satisfied; doubly so if they've recently been denied coverage for healthcare. But it's also impossible to leave without wondering where and when the "Saw" films might begin to move into the next phase in their genre progression. Perhaps the third dimension will finally move things along, or maybe change will come from outside the series (the recent "Law Abiding Citizen" may be a fresh addition). To be sure, "Saw VI" was not the turning point it may have been, and in fact, with its thinly veiled -- and wholly unnecessary -- foray into the political, it might be the most cynical of the lot.