Saturday, 4 November 2017

Jigsaw (2017) - Movie Review

Saw is my favourite film series. I really have no other way to put it; I friggin’ love these movies. Born right here in my homeland from director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, the yearly Halloween release of these films was one of the few cinematic schedules I stuck to without a break. And it’s not even for ironic ‘guilty pleasure’ reasons, as there’s honestly a lot to genuinely like for the more strong-stomached audiences out there. The grungy visual texture, Charlie Clouser’s heart-racing soundtracks, the twisted ingenuity behind the series’ trademark traps, even down to the compelling and surprisingly complex characters; it’s a cult film series with the easily-overlooked positives and myopic detraction that a lot of these series end up getting.
When the series originally closed out with The Final Chapter, while disheartened that it ended on its worst note, I’ll admit to being more disheartened that the story was closing up shop. But then, the marketing for today’s film kicked in and… well, for reasons I’ll get into, I’m approaching this with an equal mixture of excitement and hesitance. Let the games begin again.

The plot: Ten years have passed since the Jigsaw killings stopped. However, when small-time crook Edgar (Josiah Black) asks for Detective Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) at a crime scene, it seems that the games are far from over. Anna (Laura Vandervoort), Ryan (Paul Braunstein), Mitch (Mandela Van Peebles) and Carly (Brittany Allen) have been forced into one of Jigsaw’s ‘tests’, and it’s up Halloran, Detective Keith (ClĂ© Bennett) and pathologists Logan (Matt Passmore) and Eleanor (Hannah Emily Anderson) to find out who is starting the games again and where it is taking place. However, growing distrust amongst the police force means that anyone could be the culprit.

Considering this is essentially a series reboot with (mostly) all-new characters that need to be established, this is a damn good cast to kick things off anew. The actors in the central trap are all very good, getting across untrusting and capable without it completely flying off the handle. Special mention to Paul Braunstein, though, as not only does he bring the film its funnier moments, he also highlights that sense of gallows humour that these films have always had with them. It’s just a boon that he delivers it this well. Rennie has the douchebag detective down pat here, again hitting real-world abrasiveness without it getting too extreme; the visuals do enough of that already, but all in due time.
Bennett does little more than help establish the rapport between him, Halloran and the pathologists, but that in and of itself is worthwhile since it brings back one of the better running threads of the older films: How tight-knit the police force hunting down Jigsaw was. Speaking of the pathologists, Passmore does nicely as part of the main group with some very natural banter, but it’s Anderson who ends up endearing herself closest to me. She’s basically non-sexual fanservice for fans of the series, kind of like Osgood in Moffatt-era Doctor Who, but it’s a small admission of how much the fanbase helped make the series what it is, even today. As one of the tribe, I take some comfort in that.

As soon as I heard of the directing team in charge of this, I immediately felt like the series was in safe hands. After the astonishing achievement of Predestination, I’m convinced that the Spierig brothers can do no wrong, even in a new genre frontier. Thankfully, that seems to be holding strong because not only do they maintain a similar feel to the old guard, they leave a definite and unique impression on the series in the process. Forgoing the usual muted colours for more crisp and vibrant visuals, teaming up again with Predestination DOP Ben Nott, the film builds up atmosphere more out of the fear of death than actually witnessing it. There’s no shortage of gore, complete with an ending that could easily compete with Saw VI in terms of sheer viscera, but the Spierigs certainly know when and, more importantly, when not to use it. Because of this, when things do get grisly and gloriously so, that initial shock hits harder due to not being bombarded with guts beforehand.
Same goes for the colour palette, as the sunny glow of the farmhouse where the main trap takes place makes the grim details hit a little harder; contrasting literal light with figurative darkness is an old-school trick, but it still works. And as a finishing touch, we have maestro Charlie Clouser in charge of music, giving the classic themes a fresher and bigger feel to match the film itself. I swear, Hello Zepp can make anything feel tense, even after all this time.

As soon as I heard of the writing team in charge of this, on the other hand, I began to get worried again. Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger wrote Piranha 3D, and Stolberg alone not only penned the aggressively sexist Good Luck Chuck but also directed The Hungover Games. I see this filmography and I think one thing: Self-parody. I mentioned The Final Chapter earlier, and one of the bigger reasons that film failed as badly as it did is down to the same problem: Self-parody. Words cannot express how much I don’t want to see this series go down that road again. Well, I’m once again happy to proven wrong as these guys certainly know their stuff when it comes to Saw. Too much stuff, in fact.
Something that becomes very apparent while watching this, especially for those who make a habit of marathoning the series, is that a lot of this sounds familiar. Most if not all of the bigger plot developments and twists are repeated from the main series. Somewhat remixed to fit into a single film, and granted they do well enough with that prospect, but repeated nonetheless. It ends up feeling like a CliffNotes version of the franchise as a whole: Everything that people either love or want nothing to do with is here, both in terms of gore and story. But that’s with the fanboy mindset at the forefront; on its own, it still works out pretty well. The characters are engaging, their backstories are fleshed out surprisingly well, the scenarios and traps show creativity in more than just how much blood can be shed, and the story overall manages to carry a singular theme for its entirety, something that runs through most if not all of the people on screen. For a remix, that’s a pretty good effort.

The legacy of the titular serial killer has always been a part of the series; before too long, it became just as much about who would carry on his work as the work itself. It’s always been a phenomenally twisted take on the morality tale, forcing people into a position where they have to confront how little they respect their own life and those around them. This film though, in terms of dealing with that legacy, is a bit… different. The ten-year gap between Final Chapter and this could help explain it, but that main conceit of forcing people to learn to cherish their life isn’t as prominent here. What is prominent is the notion of lying, both to everyone else and one’s self. Through this, John Kramer becomes less of a vicious teacher and more of a religious figure, frankly; talks of blood sacrifices make his signature cryptic clues feel more like divine messages. Twisted, most certainly, but that’s kind of what happens with moral messages after some time has passed: They shift based on the understanding of others.
In a film that is this familiar beat-for-beat, this is honestly a good way to start things out again; reshuffling the pieces before adding new ones to the puzzle. Of course, that sense of the supernatural might be a side effect of the usual plot contrivances and moments of blind chance that make a reappearance here from… well, pretty much every film in the franchise. In either case, when combined with the constant feeling of distrust between the characters, it still manages to sink in and show that maybe there’s still more that can be done with this story.

All in all, this is a welcome surprise. While there’s quite a bit of rehashing going on in the overall story and the suspension of disbelief can get a stretched a little too far at times, the confident direction combined with the knowledgeable scripting and solid acting results in what fans of the series would want out of a continuation like this. Have to admit, it was nice leaving the cinema with that familiar raised heartbeat like I did with the other films way back when. I doubt it’ll convert anyone new to the series, but I will say this: It is a very good starting point in terms of how much a potential newcomer can take, given how it has a lot of the plot idiosyncrasies that tend to divide the audience. For everyone else, the less self-serious tone of the film will probably make for a pleasant experience, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who will get a kick out of all the little references to the past films. If this ends up being the start of a new series of films, it’s a promising first step and I’d be more than happy to restart my Halloween tradition... provided the next film has a few more fresh ideas in it.

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