23 October 2009

At the movies: Saw VI.

So let’s talk for a second about the Saw films. You know the drill, every Halloween there’s another one, consisting of a bunch of people put in horrible mechanisms that mutilate them unless they make difficult life choices. They’re a reactionary bunch of insidious expressions of how desperately people want to feel morally superior to anyone, and like some obligatory family member who only comes to visit once a year, I cannot avoid them.

Part of it goes with seeing all R-Rated Horror Films on general principle. But there is something more powerful than that at the root of these films that keeps me coming back every year (5 of the 6, on opening day even), and that’s tradition. I was too young (and also not a fan of scary movies) to have been in on the Friday the 13th tradition in the 80s of putting a new film out as often as could be done on an actual Friday the 13th, so this is the first tradition I’ve been able to be in on on the ground level.

That, in a nutshell, is why I keep going back to see these films. It’s not because of the characters, or the gore, or the traps, or whatever heinous moral logic is being spewed forth from within- it’s just the tradition of going every October with good friends.

Ideally, the Saw films would be better.

Even more ideally would be if the Final Destination series had that annual stranglehold. But obviously something appeals to audiences in seeing mutilation doled out to those who ‘don’t appreciate’ their lives. And this time, the filmmakers have decided to become- political. Our opening scene has two crooked loan officers from a bank forced to hack away at themselves in order not to have their skulls drilled into. The main plot for the film is about William (Peter Outerbridge, whom you may remember from Land of the Dead or the forgotten masterpiece Paris, France), an executive at an insurance agency who makes all the final calls about policies- including, at some point in the past, the policy of John Kramer (Tobin Bell, doing quite well for a character who died in Saw III). Which will end up being a bad mistake, as in as pandering a moment as I’ve seen in a film all year, Jigsaw indicts insurance companies onscreen for their actions.

Anyone can empathize with frustration over the organized racket that is the modern insurance industry. Anyone can derive some cheap kicks from watching an incarnation of a corrupt institution get shot, brain-bolted, hung with barbed wire, or having a nonconsensual run-in with hydrofluoric acid. But there's no revolutionary spirit to these films, no call to any sort of action. These are films built around the idea of submission to authority.

At this point in the series’ history, everyone who ever had lunch with Bell’s character in his life has somehow popped up in one of the sequels, strapped into something or shot in the face with a crossbow firing croquet mallets, and it feels like the Pirandellian structure that the writers have been trying to build has become a hermetic prison.

Costas Mandylor’s character from the past few sequels (Hoffman) is back, and he’s become the main villain of the piece because he enjoys brutality rather than earnestly trying to help people by pulverizing some extremities or by sticking a key or two inside their occipital lobe. He’s trying to take over the trap game from John’s widow Jill (Betsy “Angel” Russell, whom I’m happy to see working and who also embodies the closest thing to an actual moral principle in the entire series), and he’s putting our guy William against pretty much the entire staff of his insurance agency, having him cut the payroll in increasingly baroque and explicit ways.

But there’s a lot of blood to be shed this time around, and everyone has their own angle and some form of ulterior motive that was set up in a cutaway to what happened during a previous sequel.

A quick note, a lot of idiots like to bandy about the phrase ‘torture porn,’ which they’ll then use as a subgenre in which to link the Saw films with films like the Hostel diptych and I Know Who Killed Me. Firstly, anyone who uses the term ‘torture porn’ seriously is unworthy of your respect. Secondly, neither of the Hostel films nor I Know Who Killed Me deserve to be tarred with the Saw brush. While all three of those films do in fact depict violent acts of torture and murder, they (Hostel, its sequel, and I Know Who Killed Me) view the act of violence as something to be avoided, escaped from, triumphed over, or to be intervened in.

The Saw films have a torture fetish, and what they love is serving up big, Dr. Phil-sized servings of gore-spattered self-righteousness. The unspoken text of all the Saw films is “if you follow the rules and don’t ask questions and commit horrible acts against people who’ve probably got it coming, then not only are you better than your fellow man, but that you appreciate your life enough to carry about judgments against those around you.”

You are meant to support the killer Jigsaw, and you are never meant to give any thought to the countless victims of these films except as to whether or not they gave good splat. Even the situations that these films present in which some form of education takes place involves the suffering of someone innocent, and for these films to claim any form of moral respectability, which its producers have done, is both disingenuous and shameful.

So what we get here, after several detours into flashbacks and increasingly more ornate murderscapes, is a splattery lesson in how to turn the next generation of kids into fast-acting agents of death who mutilate without hesitation. Forgiveness is never an option in these films. We are animals built on avenging our losses, but never from learning from them. And that's just sad.

Supposedly Saw VII is being made in 3D. I suppose that’ll be enough of a factor to get me in the theatre on opening day 2010.

That, and tradition. But I sincerely hope I’m wrong.

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