Full Circle Flashback: ‘Saw V’ & ‘Saw VI’ Take Bold Steps Forward
The following review contains spoilers for Saw V and Saw VI. Click here for our spoiler review of Saw IV.
Saw IV had the insurmountable task of following up on a movie where the franchise killer died. Though it stumbled quite a bit in getting there, Darren Lynn Bousman’s third bout with the franchise did manage to set a new status quo. “Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) is the new Jigsaw killer, get used to it” Lionsgate practically screams at the end of that film. Although for that to really stick, they have to make do on their promise. Give us a Jigsaw worth following. Saw V and Saw VI do that and then some, making for two of my personal favorites in the franchise.
By the time Saw IV wrapped up, its timelines threatened to hit critical mass. Yes, that’s part of the appeal, but it was time to take a breather. By promoting series production designer David Hackl to director, Saw V gets welcome new blood in an entry that succeeds mostly because of its tight simplicity.
There is a main game, and it’s fairly solid. Five strangers find themselves in the clutches of yet another house of horrors run by Jigsaw, putting them through a series of tests that will have them shed blood in order to prove their worthiness to live. The central point of their game – the reveal that all of their tests were winnable if they would’ve worked together – is novel. Especially when it’s realized all too late by the two survivors Mallick (Greg Byrk) and Brit (Julie Benz), who have to shed an amount of blood meant for five people.
The connection between them, that they were all involved in an insurance scam arson of a building, is neat as well, but perfunctory. And that goes for most of the game. Most of the traps are simplistic machines with blades attached to them. The players aren’t particularly likable. It’s there because we have to have a game going on to ratchet up the tension for the main story.
Thankfully, the main story is a whole hell of a lot of fun. It all kicks off with Detective Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson) with his head trapped in a glass box by the Jigsaw killer, slowly filling with water. To escape, he stabs a pen through his trachea to be able to breathe. Such a quick reaction displays that this is no ordinary man that’s gone up against Jigsaw. This is a hunter who will get his prey.
Therefore Saw V follows a pulse-pounding cat-and-mouse game between Strahm and Mark Hoffman as the latter attempts to cover his tracks. If John Kramer could be compared to the Riddler, Hoffman would be more like Bane; a dead-eyed brute with a tactical mind. Costas Mandylor’s performance is much closer to a traditional slasher villain, but that’s kind of the point. He’s terrifying, over-the-top, and supremely watchable.
Mandylor really gets his time to shine in lengthy flashback sequences with John Kramer (Tobin Bell). We’ve seen the Jigsaw apprentice reveal twice at this point. Yet, we’ve never seen the actual training of one of the apprentices. The ever-charming Kramer molds the misplaced anger of Mark Hoffman into a dark angel of justice. It’s fascinating as hell, with bonus points for showing that Hoffman is the one who put the man from the first film in the razor wire trap (he was the man who killed Hoffman’s sister).
Meanwhile, Strahm is your typical hard-boiled cop protagonist. It doesn’t matter much, though, because Patterson injects pure ham into his performance. He’s a perfectly competent counterpart to Hoffman’s Jigsaw. When the two collide, it leads to one of the most polarizing moments in all of Saw. Jigsaw leads Strahmn to a lair with a box full of broken glass. He’s told that he has to trust Jigsaw to survive and get in the box. Instead, he throws Hoffman in the box. The box goes underground as the room caves in on Strahm, with plenty of planted evidence by Hoffman that Strahm is the Jigsaw killer. Hoffman lives to kill again. It’s the anti-twist, and perhaps also a brilliant representation of the movie?
Saw V isn’t necessarily special. It takes classic beats from cop dramas and refuses to throw in the head-spinning twists and turns of its predecessors. But it’s just so damn entertaining. The “nothing unnecessary” ethos of the plotting of the first three films makes a triumphant return, while Mark Hoffman becomes a worthy successor. What Saw V does is establish that there’s plenty of gas left in a franchise that seemed to have run out of steam a long time ago.
When it comes to the Saw franchise at large, few people had a hand in defining its aesthetic than Kevin Greutert. His glitchy editing style is instrumental to the pacing that makes the first five films such easy (and queasy) watches. So when he was chosen to make Saw VI his directorial debut, it was a given that it would be a solid entry into this series. But no. He couldn’t settle for just that. Saw VI is not only the very best of what the franchise has to offer, it’s my personal pick for the best horror film of the 2000s.
Saw VI serves as a culmination of the previous five films. A culmination, if you will, to a saga becoming more epic in scope with each entry. This purpose becomes evident from the very start of Hoffman’s plotline. Hoffman scrambles more than ever to cover his tracks after the events of Saw V. He enlists the help of Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), John Kramer’s ex-wife, to help carry out a game that was very important to John. However, the walls keep closing in as Hoffman’s department becomes more and more suspicious of the reality of Strahm as the Jigsaw killer.
Costas Mandylor becomes a full-on movie monster in this. His attempts to evade justice grow desperate. He then must transform into something truly ruthless. The character of Hoffman is so interesting because he’s something of a failed project of John Kramer. The bastard experiment who is making a mess of Jigsaw’s legacy. He will stoop to such low depths to protect himself. A great example of this is the reveal that he had blackmailed Amanda Young into killing Lynne in Saw III, threatening to reveal that she was partly responsible for Jill Tuck’s miscarriage.
For once, the game and the police storylines work in perfect tandem. The game this time involves William Easton (Peter Outerbridge), a sleazy insurance executive who once denied John Kramer and many others before him coverage. He and several who work at his company are placed in an abandoned zoo. Easton, who was previously considered as “worthy to live”, has to make choices between who deserves to live in each game he’s given. Moreover, saving lives often requires tremendous sacrifice to Easton.
Ironically, it’s rare to see the players in Jigsaw’s games actually learn a lesson. Easton dispels this notion. For every grueling choice, his physical and emotional scars are bare. The initially unlikable Easton becomes sympathetic due to the impossible situations he must humor. And these situations involve some of the best traps in the series. The very best deserves its own aside: the carousel.
Hoo boy, the carousel. Easton looks on while his compatriots are tied to a carousel, shotguns pointed at each of their heads. The contraption will stop randomly, allowing him to save two out of the six people. What isn’t so terrible isn’t the shotgun blasts themselves (although those are appropriately gory). It’s the howls of agony and curses the subjects make towards finding out that they weren’t chosen. Unadulterated misery and punishment for William Easton, and Outerbridge sells that pain. No trap in the series comes close to even matching the effectiveness of this one.
And even after learning his lesson, Easton is at the mercy of someone else: in this game’s twist, the family we had been watching earlier who we assumed to be Easton’s was actually the family of a deceased man he had denied coverage to. They are given a choice, and choose to kill Easton via a wall of spike that puts hydrochloric acid directly into his body. He dissolves, much to the horror of the family.
The games in Saw often have hit or miss elements. So it’s enthralling to see one where not only do all the traps hit, but the cost of human life is so stressed, and the ghoulishness of death so capitalized. Throw in a message about predatory insurance companies playing God with their decisions and you have a game that appropriately takes the focus of the film.
That’s not to say Hoffman’s storyline doesn’t lead anywhere. In fact, it has the best ending of the entire series. Hoffman, after killing everyone in the department who learns of his role as Jigsaw, is confronted by Jill Tuck. Turns out, Hoffman was part of a posthumous test to see if he’s worthy by John Kramer, carried out by Jill. He has failed, resoundingly, so Tuck puts the iconic reverse bear trap on him. “Hello Zepp” plays, we get a montage, and Jill says “Game Over” as all the previous utterances of that line are shown from the prior films. Hoffman is finally taken care of.
Or is he? Hoffman slams the trap into metal bars in the room’s he in. After the bars halt their full activation, he brutally cuts his own face out of the trap, screaming into the camera as blood gushes out of his wound. He is the last remnant of Jigsaw’s legacy and a depraved abomination of it at that. But he’s not willing to be taken out so easily. He will die hard. And so will this franchise.
Saw VI is defiant to the idea of diminishing returns of sequels. Defiant to the previous film’s simplicity. Defiant to letting the traps play out in the background. It is the crown jewel of a franchise that does not receive nearly enough credit. It brings five previous films to an explosive climax that promises a hell of a finale. Whether or not that would come to pass is beside the point. Saw VI delivered on the promise of a story that had been building up for five-plus years at this point. It’s a bloody soap opera house of horrors. What more could you ask for? –James Preston Poole
Saw V and Saw VI are both available on digital HD, home video, and streaming on HBO Max.