As the health-care debate rages on, let it be known that Jigsaw, the sinister puppetmaster played in life and beyond by Tobin Bell, favors a robust public option. (This, in the world of political punditry, is what they call a “game-changer.”) It isn’t in character for the Saw movies to embrace topicality, but at this point, anything that can help distinguish one entry from the next counts as progress. Since the first Saw came out in 2004, Lionsgate and a limited group of artisans (the writing team of Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton have turned out the last three, and VI director Kevin Greutert edited all the others) have been giving audiences exactly what they expect, while keeping an eye on the company ledger. Adding a layer of social significance isn’t the worst strategy for a franchise that keeps piling on the convoluted mythos, yet hasn’t changed its risible mix of mechanized death and tongue-clucking morality. Each one plays like a very special episode of Fear Factor, or Extreme Makeover: Self-Mutilation Edition.
Dead since the third entry, yet living on via flashbacks and one endlessly elaborate master plan, Bell’s Jigsaw entrusts the legwork to detective Costas Mandylor, who sets up the “games” his late master devises. After an entertaining prologue that pits one exploitative mortgage broker against another—more topicality!—Saw VI settles on Peter Outerbridge, a health-insurance executive who makes it his business to deny coverage to those who desperately need it. As ironic punishment, Outerbridge is forced through a timed series of trials where he must make those same life-or-death decisions for a selection of carefully chosen victims. Meanwhile, there’s some muddled intrigue involving Jigsaw, his wife, his past and current disciples, and a box he left behind.
Because Saw does nothing to alter the look, tone, and engineered gimmickry from one movie to the next, it keeps going deeper into backstory and character arcs than horror series past, as if this ugly, cheap-looking schlock were somehow The Lord Of The Rings. Even the implements of death are recycled: An acid bath, a power saw, and the signature “reverse bear trap” all make appearances, along with your favorite gears, bolts, and fluttering florescent lights. And clearly, the filmmakers have taken no graft from health-insurance lobbyists, so there’s a soupçon of integrity to the mindless bludgeoning, too.