**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B+
starring Dina Meyer, Shawnee Smith, Bahar Soomekh, Tobin Bell
screenplay by Leigh Whannell & James Wan
directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. If nothing else, the Saw saga can be said to defy the law of diminishing returns that normally governs sequels. Both the first and second instalments were equally dumb movies, combining an ambition to be more plot-driven than the average slasher opus while not having the intellectual chops to actually pull it off. Borrowing heavily from Se7en's premise of a moralistic serial killer, the films try to pass off a sub-Rod Serling guilt complex as something resembling theme and subtext; the filmmakers think they're doing more than killing folks in baroque ways, and the combination of brutal violence and twinky piety effectively blunts the former and disqualifies the latter. Which is what makes Saw III a semi-pleasant surprise: for the most part, it's far less pretentious than its predecessors, leaving us in the dark without much exposition and deferring the cheesy explanations until the predictably disappointing finale.
In this go-round, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) is still dying of cancer (this must be the most protracted death in film history) and looking for relief; he finds it in the form of doped-up doctor Lynn (Bahar Soomekh), who has naturally squandered her existence and is thus in need of Jigsaw's brand of superego justice. Intercut with her efforts to save the franchise leader is the confinement and "testing" of Jeff (Angus Macfadyen), who has become consumed with the hit-and-run death of his son and must now face various culprits in that tragedy to see whether he can resist letting them die in nasty ways. If Lynn flees the scene or Jigsaw's heart rate flatlines, a collar she's wearing will explode; if Jeff does nothing to help his tormentors, it's also intimated that something bad will happen. Let the games begin...
The new film deviates slightly from the first two by being more medical drama than police procedural. Where Saw and Saw II depended heavily upon cops doggedly tracking down our man Jigsaw (the better to skewer their overarching sense of morality), this one features the interpersonal tête-à-tête between a doctor, his patient, and that patient's obnoxious protégée, Amanda (returning flunky Shawnee Smith). Distinguishing part three as well is its greater focus on women: While the first two Saws were unique in horror for their preoccupation with male victims, this one involves not only the protracted freezing death of a naked bystander to the accident and the flaying death of Dina Meyer's cop, but also the taunting Amanda's confrontational alliance with desperate Lynn. Despite the nastiness of the deaths, the film never quite feels misogynistic, balanced as they are by two women who ultimately overshadow pompous Jigsaw.
Of course, Saw III is more interesting in the context of its predecessors than it is as a stand-alone feature. Though one is more invested in this particular outing, that's because you're distracted from the exposition--nobody's explaining anything as they go, freeing you to concentrate on the semi-creative deaths and funky sodium-lamp aesthetic that is now de rigueur for these things. But there's absolutely no consistency to the film's moral vision: Jigsaw punishes the hit-and-run driver and his accessories just as he punishes their indirect victim, sort of nullifying the message he appears to want to send his damaged and preoccupied test subject. And, naturally, it all coalesces into one of those everything-is-connected endings that marred the first two, which tries to impress you with "ingenuity" that isn't really there. You could do worse than Saw III and its time-wasting sadism, yet its feeble attempts at becoming a genuine movie only remind you that it's not.
Lionsgate (Maple in Canada) releases Saw III on DVD in multiple incarnations; we received the widescreen Unrated Edition--which extends the running time of the theatrical cut by six minutes--for review. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is suitably dank and fetid, lovingly capturing the densely-saturated Fincher-wannabe aesthetic; even the mottled greens and greys practically ooze off the screen without too much sacrifice of fine detail. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is an optimal rendering of a mix that offers in quantity (i.e., a wall of sound that assaults the viewer from every corner) what it lacks in quality/artistry.
As for extras, the disc sports no fewer than three commentaries. Track one teams director Darren Lynn Bousman, writer/executive producer Leigh Whannell, and executive producers Peter Block and Jason Constantine, the latter of whom don't make much of a contribution in what is largely Bousman and Whannell's show. Although not especially profound, it's a highly informative track that reveals which shots were done in-camera and sheds light on little technical challenges (such as how to hold the acid in place so that Dina Meyer wouldn't tip it over and spoil the trap). All said, a decent yakker. Next come producers Oren Koules and Mark Burg, who unfortunately don't do much but regurgitate pertinent info from the first track (MPAA cuts, the recurrence of Franky G from Saw II for one shot), though they do mention a serious goof involving explosives and windows and the fact that Hostel got more letters sent to the MPAA than every other theatrical feature from last year combined. One would hope that the third commentary--with Bousman joining DP David A. Armstrong and editor Kevin Greutert--would be a bit more tech-oriented, but it's mainly an elaborate discussion of censorship woes.
Featurettes begin with "The Traps of Saw III" (9 mins.), a walk through the engineering supporting the film's nasty death devices. Despite co-writer/producer Leigh Whannell and director Darren Lynn Bousman having nothing but pretentious commonplaces about "the idea should scare you," etc., there's no denying the mechanical ingenuity that goes into these traps--especially the centrepiece "Rack." In a similar vein, "The Details of Death: The Props of Saw III" (7 mins.) highlights delightful items like surgery prosthetics for Jigsaw's head and, the pièce de résistance, maggot-covered latex pigs that grossed out most members of the set. "Darren's Diary: Anatomy of a Director" (9 mins.) is a brief peek into the mind of Bousman as he jokes, laughs, and experiences fatigue on the set; no big revelations, but a few titters might result. Five minutes of deleted scenes don't deliver much beyond a lost fight scene pitting Smith against Soomekh and a reprise of the first film's photographer character; nothing ventured, nothing gained. The trailer, teaser trailer, and trailers for Crank, Saw: Uncut Edition, Saw II: Special Edition, and The Punisher: Extended Edition complete the platter.
113 minutes; Unrated; 1.78:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, English DD 2.0 (Stereo); CC; English, Spanish subtitles; DVD-9; Region One; Lionsgate/Maple