Note: This review does not spoil the central surprises of "Saw III." It does, however, involve discussion of the central surprises of "Saw" and "Saw II."
The "Saw" movies, now totalling three films, are strangely compelling "endurance-horror" gorefests which thus far have all shared myriad shortcomings (some questionable acting, noticeably-constrained budgets) and have all largely overcome them through visual invention, narrative cleverness and a great central figure in "Jigsaw," who's shaped up to be at least the most welcome (serious) addition to the pantheon of horror icons in a decade or more.
The pitch: Jigsaw is an especially diabolical serial killer... who technically hasn't "killed anyone." He likes to place his victims into lethal traps and provide for them a fairly simple escape... with a catch: The escape will involve the endurance of horrifying physical and/or psychological torture. See, Jigsaw fancies himself a kind of extreme life-coach. His victims are people whom, in his view, are wasting their lives; and his "tests" are designed to FORCE them to appreciate the little things... like, say, being able to draw another breath.
"Saw" eventually revealed Jigsaw to be a frail cancer patient (Tobin Bell) who's actions are motivated by his apparent disgust with those "wasting" the life he's soon to lose. "Saw II" revealed a sidekick in the person of Amanda (Shawnee Smith) a former drug addict and rare survivor of a Jigsaw test who's taken his message to heart. "Saw III" opens with the tying up of loose ends (read: survivors) from the previous sequel, and establishes a troubling new mystery: Someone is setting up Jigsaw-style traps with a new twist: The escapes are phony, and death is garaunteed.
The real Jigsaw, meanwhile, is not long for the world but, regardless, has set up his torture chambers for one more big game. His subject this round is Jeff, (Angus MacFayden,) a man losing his grip on family and reality due to the hit-and-run death of his son. The test: to present Jeff with the various players responsible for his boy's death, all locked up in brand-spanking-new Jigsaw deathtraps, and give him the chance to either free them or watch them die. Jigsaw has his usual cryptic reasons for wanting to see how this one turns out, and to that end he's kidnapped a trouble female surgeon to keep him alive to the end... or else.
Everything that worked in the previous installments works, everything that didn't still doesn't. On the plus-side, the structure is still wickedly ingenious, the surprises are still nasty and the pace still cooks. On the down-side, the threshold of disbelief is still stretched pretty thin, and some of the acting is still pretty questionable. The latter isn't a problem for Bell, an ever-reliable character actor who's turned Jigsaw into a genuinely fascinating movie-psycho (and who will richly deserve the better roles he'll be belatedly offered now that this franchise has raised his profile.)
The film puts itself into a corner with the Jeff character. Problematically, he's never believably insane enough for there to be any tension as to whether or not he's going to let anyone die... but if he WERE it'd be harder to root for him to survive. It's not a deal-breaker, but it doesn't help. Fortunately, the side-stories involving Jigsaw's makeshift medical care (and Amanda's growing mental breakdown) are more interesting and provide this installment's best gore: Onscreen power-tool brain surgery. Nice.
This can only go on so far, but for now the franchise remains worthy Halloween fare. Recommended.
FINAL RATING: 7/10