It’s rare the third entry in a franchise improves on its predecessor, but Saw III proves it possible. Spoilers follow.
The film isn’t without its problems. It struggles out of the gate, dumping us into a scene that picks up where the second film ended. Donnie Wahlberg’s cop sits chained to the wall of the first film’s bathroom. Still believing his son is in imminent mortal danger, he’s frantic to escape. But rather than saw through his foot, he takes the smarter route and breaks the bone by smashing it with a toilet top. It’s a brutal scene and Wahlberg commits to the performance. But we’re coming in cold, with no build-up, where Wahlberg’s performance is already at level ten. Without our emotional investment, his performance veers into camp.
From there, we’re back with the still-inept police. They’re investigating a Jigsaw copycat. Dina Meyer, returning as lead on the Jigsaw case, inherits the “Did you even go through basic training?” mantle from Wahlberg (who inherited it from Danny Glover’s character in part one), hallucinating, taking sensitive materials home with her, and discharging her weapon without a clear field of fire or even a target.
This all proves filler, as the story soon pivots to its real thread. The antagonist from the prior films, Jigsaw, lies near-death from a brain tumor. He’s got one more “game” to play, involving Jeff, a man who’s grieving the death of his young son in a hit-and-run. To ensure Jigsaw lives to see the game completed, his assistant has kidnapped a doctor, Lynn, played by Bahar Soomekh.
Jeff winds his way through assorted death traps. In an interesting change, Jigsaw has trapped various people involved in Jeff’s son’s death and gives Jeff the choice to save them. These traps showcase terrific practical effects. A standout involves drowning a victim in ground rotted pig carcasses. Not a drop of blood, but brutal to watch. I loved it.
In parallel, Lynn works to keep Jigsaw alive. Soomekh’s snarling, barking performance proves too broad early, but she tones it down as the film unwinds. In the film’s bloodiest scene, she performs open-skull surgery to relieve the swelling in Jigsaw’s brain. Director Darren Lynn Bousman abandons the usual quick-cut editing for a deliberate, clinical view of the procedure, resulting in an even more brutal scene. I loved the irony of a life-saving sequence proving harder to stomach than a life-threatening one.
Indeed, the film executes some novel narrative tricks to boost our attachment to Jigsaw. There’s the obvious deathtrap strapped to Lynn, which will trigger should Jigsaw die. But the subtle reshaping of his character helps too. The script points out that he abhors murder and insists on giving his victims a fair chance at life and freedom. His machinations still lack the first film’s inevitability, but they prove far more deliberate than in the prior film. I came away with a better sense of his character’s twisted viewpoint. He’d make a great Batman villain.
Everything culminates with a now-standard big plot twist. While not the equal of the first film, I appreciated how it tied the film together. I did not appreciate the CGI blood, however, which I fear doesn’t bode well for further sequels.