When people in heaven are trading stories about how they went out, at least the victims in Saw movies have original anecdotes: "How did you die?" "Heart attack, and you?" "Well, I was pinned to the bottom of a steel vat and drowned in a putrescent sea of rotting pig corpses." These novel deaths have to be the reason the franchise has survived as long as it has; unlike the Jasons and Michael Myerses of the horror world, Saw's Jigsaw killer has a flair for theatricality, and he replaces those banal butcher knives with elaborate homemade S&M apparatuses. The movies, too, are depressingly mechanical Rube Goldberg torture devices, with spring-loaded twists to go along with those reverse bear traps and ribcage-separators. Because of its efforts to make sense of the previous entries and even attempt an earnest parable about forgiveness, Saw III may be the best of the trilogy; hopefully, it'll encourage its makers to wrap the franchise on a relatively high note.
After an inauspicious start—one man caught in the classic leg-shackle-and-a-saw scenario, another pinned next to a bomb with chains hooked into his flesh—the film slowly evolves into a macabre character study. Still bedridden with terminal cancer, Tobin Bell's Jigsaw leaves much of the dirty work to Shawnee Smith, a former victim turned overeager assistant. Determined to keep Bell alive for another round of "games," Smith kidnaps a doctor (Bahar Soomekh) and straps an explosive collar to her neck, connecting it to Bell's heart-rate monitor. If Bell's heart stops, ka-boom. Meanwhile, the two have designed an obstacle course of sorts for Angus Macfadyen, a bereaved father consumed with revenge for the driver who killed his son and got off with a light sentence. Can he learn to forgive?
Perhaps his place on death's door makes him more sympathetic, but Saw III manages to transform Bell from a grim, obsessive sadist to an avuncular life coach, like Fangoria's answer to Dr. Phil. Bell has always insisted that he isn't a murderer—hey, if people can't retrieve the key from the bottom of the beaker of sulfuric acid, that's their problem—and this film finally gives a shred of credence to that claim, even as it questions whether his "trials" are constructive to the people who survive them. Pretty heady stuff, if only it weren't still in the context of a relentlessly bleak, humorless, gimmicky contraption that wore out its novelty two movies ago.