Saw III (2006)

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I couldn’t watch Saw III, and its depiction of an extended, sadistic game that psycho killer Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) plays with his victims, without thinking of reality TV shows like Fear Factor. Can it be a deliberate parody?

I’ll admit that I’ve never seen a Saw film before. But I was surprised at how much I found to enjoy in this one. Even from a ramshackle hospital bed, Bell has a creepy, loathsome presence that’s pitched exactly right for this material, and Shawnee Smith’s performance as an up-and-coming sadist — the kind of role women seldom get to play — is uneven but energetic. The camerawork, kept consistent across the series by cinematographer David A. Armstrong, is appropriately pulpy, with lots of film grain and color washes that suggest a spread right out of EC comics. The screenplay (by Leigh Wannell, who’s also been involved with all three movies, including a performance in the first one) is inventive, but it’s not exactly what you’d call tight. It gets by on the strength of nightmare logic, and the unapologetic tableaux of nightmarish torture that keep it lurching from scene to scene.

The film’s more cringeworthy bits involve a naked woman in a deep freezer, open-head surgery, and a series of putrid, liquefied pig carcasses. On some level, I do believe it’s good, morbid fun in the Halloween mode — the gross bits were generally enough to make me squirm, and I’m pretty sure I had a smile on my face. But at the same time, it may be the most cynical movie I’ve seen all year, with a killer who correctly banks on his victim’s inability to do the right thing. For this year’s torture test, Jigsaw has abducted Jeff, a grieving father who blames a careless driver, a lenient judge, and a runaway witness for the death of his son. Let loose in a mazelike chamber of horrors, Jeff comes face-to-face with each of them, and each time has the opportunity to spare their lives or let them die. (As it turns out, Jeff’s not very decisive — he wastes precious moments nattering to himself about nothing in particular, like one of those twitchy contestants on Deal or No Deal, so that even if he decides he wants to save someone it’s likely to already be too late.) The final outcome of Jigsaw’s game is stacked, based on the principal that, given the choice between forgiveness and vengeance, Jeff won’t be able to stifle his bloodlust.

So as far as its outsized box-office appeal goes ($34.2 million in one weekend), the significance isn’t that kids are turning out in huge numbers to see a film in which a series of mostly anonymous screen characters are killed in graphic fashion. The significance is that the kids are turning out in huge numbers to see a film positing that, in general, we all deserve this kind of horrific demise. Despite the nihilistic front it puts up, Saw III probably does have something to teach us about the world we live in.

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