The following review contains spoilers for Saw IV. Click here for our spoiler review of Saw II and Saw III.
Making a sequel to Saw III is a Herculean feat. After all, John Kramer/Jigsaw AND his accomplice Amanda Young both died at the end of the previous film. Put yourself in the shoes of Lionsgate, however. Saw III earned around $160 million at the box office on a $10 million budget. You kind of have to continue the story at that point. Saw IV opts to pass the narrative torch, resulting in the most inconsistent entry into the series yet.
More than before, Saw IV hinges on a twist. Credit where credit’s due, the twist itself is dynamite. You see, the film opens directly after Saw III. As Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) looks on, we see an autopsy on John Kramer (Tobin Bell). During the autopsy, they find a tape in his stomach. After playing the tape, a new game is apparently afoot from beyond the grave. The rest of the film follows said game until the ending reveals that (gasp) everything that has taken place following the autopsy was set concurrently to Saw III and Mark Hoffman is the second apprentice to Jigsaw, making the beginning of the film secretly the end of the film. It’s the kind of mind-bending knockout you expect by this point. Yet the film surrounding it is less strong.
Director Darren Lynn Bousman returns for one final time (until Spiral: From the Book of Saw). He has refined his style to a science by this point, making the dark, twisted voice he brings to the franchise something of a horror comfort. It’s simply unfortunate, then, that he doesn’t have a writer of Leigh Whannell’s caliber to support him. Saw IV goes from strength to weakness at a breakneck pace, so it’s probably best to discuss the film in its different sections.
One part of the film involves Officer Daniel Rigg (Lyriq Bent) on a quest to find his wife before a timer runs out. Along the way, he encounters various criminals caught in Jigsaw’s trap, having to opt to save them or let them be “punished”. The idea for this central game is solid, as is the ending of it, where Rigg realized that his patience was being tested and that he could’ve beat it by simply waiting it out. What doesn’t work is the traps themselves.
New writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan don’t really focus on the ingenuity. Rather, they focus more on the cruelty of them. Also, nearly all of the trap victims have pasts rooted in sex crimes. Now, this could be an effective through-line if treated with care. Saw IV goes for the exploitative, making the whole plotline a lot less than clever than it might have been otherwise. Of course, the traps are moment-to-moment effective, just not as much as before.
The second plotline involves Hoffman and Detective Matthews (Donnie Walhberg) from Saw II – hey, he’s alive! – stuck in an elaborately crude trap. Matthews is standing on a slowly melting ice block. Once melted enough, this will hang him from a noose. The water then is set to combine with an electric current to fry the strapped-up Hoffman. Somewhere along the line, a blackmailed lawyer comes in to monitor their progress. Not much to say about this one, it’s intriguing to see what these three pawns in Jigsaw’s plan do while they bide their time. Costas Mandylor is entertainingly bug-eyed, and in the sequels, he continues to grow into his role.
Where Saw IV gets its high marks is in the storyline of Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), the ex-wife of John Kramer. As people interrogate her, we learn quite a bit about her and John’s backstory. The real incident that leads to Jigsaw’s origin happens at a clinic for addicts run by Kramer and a pregnant Tuck. After closing, an addict robs the clinic, slamming a door on Tuck’s stomach accidentally and causing a miscarriage. What follows is a detailed look into Kramer’s psychosis, and Tuck as someone who has to pick up the pieces. This section establishes a new series precedent of diving deeper into the backstory with each installment.
Although messy as all hell, Saw IV is a transitional installment in the franchise. For the missteps its central game takes, the film elsewhere starts to define a new series throughline: the concept of a killer’s legacy. We’re introduced properly to Mark Hoffman and Jill Tuck, two characters who will become some of the stronger in the franchise, and we get closure on past Saw threads (oh yeah, Donnie Wahlberg’s character dies). Saw IV at the very least marks the groundwork for two great installments in the series coming up. –James Preston Poole
Saw IV is now on HBO Max, digital HD, and home video.