Sorry to break it to fans of the Saw film series, but Jigsaw, a/k/a John Kramer is a self-righteous dick. In comparison to the Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers of the horror world, whose raison d'être is causing carnage mercifully bereft of deeper moral or instructional value, Jigsaw devotes a ridiculous amount of time thinking about what other people do with themselves, and effectively (if ironically) conceives his traps as object lessons in humility, compassion, and self-awareness. Personally, I find this high-handed moralizing far more painful than any evil device he could possibly design, but then again, that's why I'm not a fan of the series; that said, the latest installment in the Saw franchise appears to fulfill all of the demands of its audience and then some, making it a worthy and faithful entry in a franchise which at this point seems expressly designed to document people dying in increasingly inventive ways.
After a cold-open sequence where two loan officers compete to dismember themselves as an alternative to being literally screwed to death, Saw VI opens as Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) investigates Jigsaw's (Tobin Bell) latest crime – which, coincidentally, he helped execute. As he narrowly eludes discovery by his colleagues, across town a claims adjuster named William (Peter Outerbridge) becomes the victim of Jigsaw's next deadly game, while the long-deceased killer's widow Jill (Betsy Russell) carries out her late husband's final wishes. Soon, the paths of these various players intersect, but despite their various efforts to take control of their lives - and in some cases those of the others, it's Jigsaw himself who comfortably presides over all of them, even from beyond the grave. This time, though, his goal seems to be to drive his deadly game towards its ultimate conclusion.
Having studiously avoided most of the previous installments of the Saw series thanks to my appreciation/ distate for the original film (while I recognize its creativity, watching it felt like an endurance test), the first question that popped into my mind as I watched a young lady chop off her arm while watching a colleague cut filets from his love handles was, why is this enjoyable to anyone? As if the gore itself isn't bad enough, Jigsaw's targets are regularly subjected to lengthy speeches where he ham-fistedly tries to equate Hell's version of a "Double Dare" physical challenge with their offenses against humanity; as he unleashes the film's first two victims upon themselves, he observes that he has put them in chains "symbolic of the shackles you place on others." Mind you, when much of your work is being done in the last days of your life, it's perhaps understandable to be a little maudlin, but after six films, dozens of traps and countless victims, it's hard to determine which feels more harmful - Jigsaw's mechanical expertise, or his use of metaphor.
Meanwhile, one has to wonder what inspires folks to return to theaters annually and subject themselves to grand guignol spectacle like this – appreciation for Jigsaw's calculated motives? A certain sort of wish fulfillment? A depressing level of desensitization to human pain and suffering? It's hard for me to believe that other than a passing fascination with the character's (and by extension, the screenwriters') depravity, these movies actually make a deeper impression than delighted revulsion, gag-induced thrill, or some other such combination of excitement and horror. Especially when one of its biggest set pieces involves the prospect of six people the audience doesn't know being put on a playground ride (call it a gory-go-round) and subjected to point-blank shotgun blasts at the whim of a guy forced to make decisions about who among them lives and dies.
What's sadder, maybe, is that evidenced by this chapter in Jigsaw's saga – which is stacked with at least as many flashbacks as current-story scenes – the killer isn't merely trying to exact revenge, or inspire/ inflict epiphanies upon his victims; he's doing nothing less than raging against the dying of the light. At one point, he tries to convince Jill that the junkies she treats would be better off under his care, while making the point – emphatically - that they're ungrateful and insensitive to her efforts. While it speaks to the threadbare remnants of the franchise's original concept that Jigsaw's ire runs so deep his only remaining targets for "enlightenment" are random drug addicts and folks whose lifestyles with whom he disagrees, such diatribes are a reminder that somewhere embedded in the series' mythology, there's a genuine belief that each trap examines something real and meaningful, rather than simply offering the nihilist thrill of a "smart" slasher movie. Which, brutality aside, might actually be easier to digest, even among its detractors.
Ironically, however, most of these musings on the franchise's underpinnings are irrelevant to its general effectiveness, and certainly unimportant to the folks excited to see a sixth installment. In which case, Saw VI really does deliver what it promises – buckets of agonizing gore, labyrinthine explanations/ leaps in logic, and a philosophical foundation that practically defines the difference between clever and smart. Truth be told, I really expected to hate this film, and I didn't; it all worked together as well as a sixth film in a series probably ever could, offered bloody payoffs at regular enough intervals that I was never bored, and provided enough exposition and background detail that I never wondered what was happening, even when I really had no clue.
In fact, it's entirely possible that Saw VI is the best sixth chapter in horror history, if such a distinction means anything, delivering thrills that are both unique and familiar – and most importantly, integrally connected – to its predecessors. Admirably, the screenwriters not only draw upon the rich and bloody legacy of the series for their latest installment, but additionally borrow inspiration from contemporary issues like the housing market crisis or healthcare, which, although explored in a decidedly broad and bloody way, give the film a resonance, or at least a rewarding sense of vindication that has dwindled in the intervening years since the series began. Ultimately, Saw VI is an efficient and effective thriller, and should satisfy fans new and old alike; and even if you think that the horror convention of a pontificating killer is particularly tiresome, this film manages to mostly put its money where Jigsaw's mouth is, while giving the phrase "ripped from the headlines" an altogether new meaning.