By Juan Barquin
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Milestone in motion picture history: On Halloween weekend 2006, Saw III grossed $34.3 million to become the Iraq war-era's bloodiest chart-topping torture movie whose victims don't include Jesus of Nazareth. Only God or Jack Valenti knows how this work of pure entertainment got away with an R rating "for strong grisly violence and gore, sequences of terror and torture, nudity, and language," including the scene wherein a woman hangs buck naked from the ceiling of a cold meat locker, shivering to death as she's periodically sprayed with water. Good thing for Lionsgate this lady doesn't have an orgasm; that, as Kirby Dick's This Film Is Not Yet Rated reminds us, would've come at the expense of an R and at least a few million dollars at the box office. (Perhaps she'll be allowed to enjoy herself a little more on the DVD.)
Pardon the implied moralism of the above paragraph while bearing in mind that Saw movies are nothing if not morality plays themselves. You would say these sadistically elaborate contraptions are serial-killer thrillers except that the hoodie-sporting psycho known as Jigsaw, though he prefers to be called by his Christian name, John (Tobin Bell) doesn't actually kill: He merely places his victims (or his victims' victims) in various punishing situations that require one party or another to "choose" life. Take Naked Lady (Debra McCabe), who, strung up in that icebox by Jigsaw's victim-turned-henchwoman Amanda (Shawnee Smith), is cold in more ways than one: Seems she said nothing in court when called as the sole witness to the vehicular slaughter of an eight-year-old boy.
What does Jigsaw do? He gives the dead kid's grieving dad (Angus MacFadyen) a flicked Bic's chance in snow to take mercy on three people: first on the frigidly passive witness to the accidental crime (maybe this woman doesn't deserve to be hanging buck naked from the ceiling of a cold meat locker?); then on the judge who gave a light sentence to the driver (maybe this necktie-sporting gentleman doesn't deserve to be drowned in freshly extracted pig fluid?); and then shades of Lionsgate's Oscar-grabbing Crash on the African-American driver (Mpho Koaho) himself.
Moral dilemma Saw-style: Maybe the young black man doesn't deserve to be placed in a medieval limb-twisting device. What do you think? Think we shouldn't think about it? Violent vengeance is a heavy topic even when racial issues aren't involved, but this is just a dumb horror movie. Maybe it isn't worth our time to wonder whether the graphic depiction of a young black man being placed in a medieval limb-twisting device is justified either by the movie's $34.3 million gross in three days (the people have spoken?) or by its moral and ethical dimensions, including the excruciating pains it takes to point out that the black man is a medical student as if that detail should be surprising or otherwise relevant to the audience's jury deliberations.
Saw III directed, like Saw II, by 27-year-old Kansas native Darren Lynn Bousman looks like it might have been shot mostly in 35mm. Bousman often favors a bile-green lighting scheme that probably wouldn't appear as vivid or intense in digital. (Bile-green may very well be the new orange.) He also likes using subliminally fast edits in some of the torture scenes, pushing the envelope of post-MTV horror. Still, despite the cutting frenzy, Saw III is torturously long surprising only in that a shorter film could allow exhibitors to offer more shows in a single day.
Speaking of business, Variety has reported that Saw III drew as many women over the weekend as men, which Lionsgate and Bousman might read as a sign of their shrewd incorporation of a love triangle: pasty-faced Jigsaw, ailing from the myriad effects of a frontal lobe tumor; Lynn (Bahar Soomekh), an attractive doctor whom Jigsaw kidnaps and puts to work as his surgeon; and Amanda, who, having learned to love her torturer in Saw II, becomes extremely jealous in Saw III when Lynn earns Jigsaw's affection by power-drilling into the ivory-white bone of his skull in order to relieve the pressure on his brain. This is almost laughably absurd, but, unlike the first Saw, the epic third installment gives no indication its humor is remotely intentional.
Bousman, who has claimed Wes Craven's Last House on the Left as a "big influence on me," affects the role of an artist if not a philosopher. His game-playing Jigsaw says he's "testing the fabric of human nature," offering challenges to the survival instinct that often force the suffering victim to decide whether to puncture herself with a sharp object in the eye, for instance.
Saw III is testing the fabric of human nature, one could argue though that might be reading too much into it. Ask the half-brained, fully controlling Jigsaw what all of this torture really means, and if he doesn't feel like negotiating with you, he'll simply say, "Game over."
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