To the credit of the Saw producers (a group that still includes creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell, although neither of them are writing or directing anymore), each of the films has been at least somewhat different from the one that preceded it. However, facing facts, each one is a riff on a single theme that has been stretched beyond all elasticity and believability. Every subsequent entry attempts to top the one before, every subsequent entry attempts to up the ante. In short, every subsequent entry is less and less necessary. But Lion's Gate is going to keep churning them out as long as the series stays profitable. For those of you expressing surprise at the fact that a Saw IV exists under Lion's Gate's wing, I've got three words for you: Open Water 2!
So why do we keep watching the Saw movies (and yes, I'm including myself in this)? It's for that one moment in the final act with the surprise twist that makes everything fall right back into place and makes every confusing moment seem crystal clear. It's the "Oh, I get it!" moment that makes Saw flicks work. Saw IV most certainly has that same ending element and yes, it's surprising. Further, it's interesting and makes (at least some kind of) sense. The rest of the film is so bogged down with the search for something new to do while still figuring out how the hell to continue the series with the main villain(s) dead that one might wonder just why the eff you see kay they sat through the whole film until that surprising end.
The film kicks off with a puke-making detail of John Kramer's autopsy. Yeah, we get the whole skull-cracking, brain-weighing, y-incision-making, stomach-pumping mess. It's that last part that kicks off the plot, as the morgue dudes discover yet another tape rolling around in big John's gut. Why does this warrant such scrutiny? Elementary, my dear reader, John Kramer is also known as "The Jigsaw Killer" (as played by Tobin Bell) and he assures Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) and, by proxy, us, that the "games" are just beginning.
Yeah, "Hoffman". Remember him? Maybe, maybe not. He's one of the wallflowers from Saw III. It seems that when crafting Saw IV returning director Darren Lynn Bousman and writers Thomas H. Fenton, Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton had to take a good look at each other and say "Okay, who's still alive that we can use here?"
Hence the real game beginning with the discovery of the corpse of poor, ripped-open Detective Kerry (Dina Meyer) and the new focus on her party pal Officer Rigg (Lyriq Bent, who was actually a wallflower since Saw II)! Interestingly enough, they've also brought in some new blood (pun intended) in the form of FBI Agents Perez (Athena Karkanis) and Strahm (Scott Patterson, best known as Luke from Gilmore Girls).
In the surprise category, if you think you know what happened to Donnie Wahlberg's Eric Mathews, get ready for a new lesson (that... sort of poisons part of the surprise from the last film's ending). Further, in spite of the fact that Jigsaw is now dead as a Jigsaw, Tobin Bell is given his biggest role yet in a Saw flick as John Kramer's back story is explored much deeper than ever before. While this can be good (if the film makers hadn't done it, it would surely be tackled in other media), it's also a bit too much of a mystery remover. If you thought the idea of Jigsaw being shown in deeply romantic moments in Saw III was a little odd, get ready to explore his marriage to Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell) in great detail in Saw IV. Hell, apparently he even had friends and business partners like Justin Louis' Art!
These are only three of the many, many recurring faces from the previous entries in the series that we see in this movie. We also get a stack of "how do you dos" from Shawnee Smith, Bahar Soomekh, Angus Macfadyen, Emmanuelle Vaugier, J. LaRose, Mike Butters, Noam Jenkins, Tony Nappo and basically everybody except ol' Wesley from The Princess Bride in either a flashback, archival footage or new bridging footage.
Of course this also works to further the mystery (mostly fueled in this one by red herrings and false clues) of just who is doing what and when. Timing is the major question in Saw IV and I mean that both textually and thematically. The character of Jigsaw has earned a fandom designation as a genius because of his elaborate traps and machinations. As the series has progressed his plots have gotten bigger and bigger and bigger to the point that it's almost impossible to believe they would all still work (especially after the man has died). There is no room left for chaos or chance in these big schemes, which is why this one gets to be much too big, much too fast. It's still entertaining, yes, and it's still got that surprise, twist ending (that may satisfy some and confuse others). However, Saw IV is the latest (so far) in a series of movies that pushes the same red envelope of blood and gore, consistently topping the previous flick with boat loads of bloodletting, several severings, multiple mutilations and countless crushings.
It could be argued that the Saw films aren't truly "Horror" films in the traditional sense in that they don't truly revolve around the fear of fear. These are more about the aversion to pain and the wince-factor surrounding how much something we see might hurt in real life, coupled with the psychology surrounding what in real life could be more important than dealing with such pain and loss. Any way you slice it (pun intended), Saw IV doesn't quite cut it (pun intended) when matching up to the real psychological horror films that have teeth (pun intended). It's fun and will surely be pleasing to fans. As a fan, I'm not above admitting that I liked it. I'm also not below giving Saw IV Two Stars out of Five. It's not a bad movie per se, but it can neither be considered surprising or shocking considering its status as the fourth in a series, nor is it a film that could survive on its own, self contained, merits. Still, it's sure to make a mint and pave the bloody path for the next two (at least) Sawdust Memories. So until then, thanks for the memories and I'll see you in the next reel.
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