Costas Mandylor as Hoffman
Tobin Bell as Jigsaw
Peter Outerbridge as William
Shawnee Smith as Amanda
With a machine-like precision worthy of one of Jigsaw's traps, yet another entry in the Saw series is arriving in theaters in time for Halloween. After the disappointing fifth film that spent far too much of its running time engaged in flashbacks that overlapped events of the previous films, filling in the blanks on the part Jigsaw's accomplices have played, this sequel is set more in the here and now (and what flashbacks it does feature are more dramatically interesting than just revealing other angles of past scenes). Being a Saw film, of course, the story still whiplashes back and forth in time and between various plotlines, but yet Saw VI is more accessible than the sixth Saw film has any right to be.
Unfortunately, while this is a solid improvement over Saw V, at this point it's hard to not feel as though the series is too burdened with the chore of taking care of old business. Credit has to be given to screenwriters Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan (who have scripted the last three Saws) for keeping everything straight but one wishes that the series didn't have so much baggage to carry. There's a compellingly nasty and politically timely horror thriller within Saw VI but it keeps having to forfeiting its time to scenes resolving the storylines of the previous Saws â€“ something that casual viewers will potentially either be confused or bored by. Maybe the producers are banking on the hope that at this point, the series doesn't have many casual viewers left and that the series' continuing characters and conflicts are all fresh in their mind.
As Saw VI begins, Lt. Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), Jigsaw's successor, is feeling pretty good, having removed a major obstacle in his path at the end of V. But stepping into Jigsaw's shoes isn't such an easy matter. Even though he set up the late Agent Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson) to be mistaken as Jigsaw's accomplice, the evidence that Hoffman left to incriminate Strahm isn't conclusive enough to shut the books on the case. Strahm's old partner, Agent Lindsey Perez (Athena Karkanis), isn't ready to accept that her partner was a murderer and is working with Strahm's boss, Dan Erickson (Mark Rolston) to go through the evidence. In the meantime, John Kramer's ex-wife Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell) has opened the box that was left to her in Saw V by John's lawyer and its contents prove that when it comes to planning ahead, no one has anything over on John Kramer, aka â€˜Jigsaw' (Tobin Bell). Kramer is such a forward thinker that further entries in the Saw series might have to explain that he was in fact a gifted clairvoyant.
Three films now since the character died, Kramer is once again very present in the storyline of Saw VI. His participation in the film via flashbacks is well handled, making this his best postmortem appearance yet. How further Saws will be able to keep making the character's continued inclusion feel organic will be a challenge but a Saw film without Bell is unthinkable. In Saw VI, Bell continues to make the soft-spoken Kramer a compelling character as Melton and Dunstan's screenplay reveals further details of Kramer's past. Bell has an uncanny knack for making Kramer plainly batshit on the one hand (let's face it â€“ his method of â€˜curing' people doesn't have much of a success rate to recommend it) and yet rational and reasonable on the other. He also conveys the kind of low-key charisma that makes it plausible that he could gather devoted followers like Amanda (Shawnee Smith) and Hoffman to his cause. And it's something of a small miracle (and a victory for Bell) that the character hasn't descended into self-parody by now.
In Saw VI, the main victims all work in everyone's current favorite den of evil, the health insurance industry. As someone who was faced with a terminal illness, the callous neglect of patient's claims and the denial of coverage is an issue that was, unsurprisingly, a personal one for Kramer. And as you might imagine, even from beyond the grave he would like to teach these people who hold life and death decisions in their hands every day what life and death decisions are all about. Kramer's outrage against the aloofness of insurance companies regarding the care of their clients is well timed to the current political climate and is much more compelling than Saw V's main story which had its victims linked to a crime involving real estate development. It's just unfortunate that the film has to keep cutting away to Hoffman's efforts to stay one step ahead of the Jigsaw investigation (although it's a relief that Mandylor delivers a better performance here than he did in V). Melton and Dunstan juggle the multiple demands of the storyline more deftly than in their previous two Saw screenplays but the series is undeniably encumbered by its mounting complexities.
In the director's chair, previous Saw series editor Kevin Greutert makes an impressive first time feature debut here. Perhaps due to his editing background (besides his work on the Saw series, Greutert also edited The Strangers), Greutert's approach results in a film that isn't quite as frenetic as the Saw films have become known for. And yet Greutert dutifully delivers the gore that fans rely on (courtesy of longtime Saw veteran, FX expert Francois Dagenais) by staging some of most brutal traps in the series.
For the first Halloween since its start as a franchise, Saw has some real competition in theaters in the form of Paranormal Activity â€“ but Saw VI proves that the series still knows how to play a good game.