Who would've guessed that from the lengthy list of gimmicks employed by the Saw series, the one to try patience in Saw IV would not be its elaborate, torture-happy deathtraps, serial killer Jigsaw's dour sermonizing, or its shamelessly amped-up filmmaking, but rather the filmmakers' insistence on movie-to-movie continuity. Saw IV, like its predecessors, takes places directly after, and in some cases concurrently with, the events of its immediate predecessor. For a time, this attention to detail seemed novel; but now lacking any real forward movement, the series threatens to collapse into a black hole of its own making.
The attachment of the Saw series to even its most inconsequential, dull, poorly-realized characters rivals and maybe surpasses head murderer Jigsaw's own hang-ups; the filmmakers have become serial killers by proxy, obsessed with every minor character who crosses their path. The sinking feeling I got watching Saw IV was not horror-movie dread, or even trepidation about the inevitable Saws five through ten in particular, but that Saw V will feel obligated to feature such dynamic new franchise additions such as that FBI agent guy (Scott Patterson) and that one cop who knew those other cops (Costas Mandylor). Based on series patterns, Joanne Boland and Julian Richings will have major parts in the next sequel, reprising their roles of "crime scene photographer" and "vagrant," respectively.
Saw IV, like its predecessors, follows parallel tracks of an attempt to find (what's left of) Jigsaw (led by the FBI agent guy, his lady partner, and the one cop who knew those other cops) and Jigsaw's latest elaborate death game. The latter has another cop who knew those other cops, Rigg (Lyriq Bent), scrambling to save his near-fallen comrades. Once this entire police department is dead, Jigsaw can only hope that there is a second department to engage in self-torturing vengeance games.
Of course, Jigsaw himself is dead too -- horror-movie aficionados who demand to see the body as proof are obliged early on, in appropriately grotesque detail -- but his creepy moralizing will live forever through his various recruited acolytes and, more reliably, his traps, which are rarely in need of their own violent lesson-learning sessions, at least so far as the audience can see (we'll have to wait until the series goes into space to see whether Jigsaw's devices can be used on robots).
We also see some of the old guy's backstory via flashbacks, elaborating further on his relationship with ex-wife Jill (Betsy Russell), only glimpsed in flashes during Saw III. Yes, Jigsaw has an ex-wife. One can only imagine the gigantic bear-trap filled with acid-tipped barbed wire he would use to teach her about the evils of depending on alimony over self-reliance. Actually, Jigsaw doesn't seem bitter about the split; far more clichéd monster-man explanations of his obsessions await.
Despite the lack of imagination in the Jigsaw flashbacks, especially compared with the occasionally tense mind games the earlier sequels, they're still the best thing about Saw IV. Tobin Bell's eerily quiet embodiment of twisted calculation has always been the most interesting aspect of the series; it's still novel to see a slasher movie that pays attention to the bad guy's makeup-free, unmasked face.
It's hard to miss, though, the sense of fatigue of the first three Saw films, equally exploitative, nonsensical, and indefensible but with a greater B-movie charge. Here, the perverse death-traps seem a little half-assed, with little variety or twisted imagination (the simplest but most effectively creepiness happens in a flashback, as if to emphasize Jigsaw in a simpler time). The cuts between the cops on various crime scenes and the victims on the clock feel more restless, especially since even the most faintly recognizable B-movie actors like Dina Meyer or Shawnee Smith have been killed and replaced with a bunch of guys who are hard to tell apart.
The Saw films will doubtless continue and soon enough Saw IV will probably be relegated to the same blur with which I now see the other sequels. But for now it's the odd movie out -- as cheap and cheesy as its brethren, but oddly boring for long stretches. By now, these Saw characters have been having a very bad couple of murder-packed weeks. Maybe it would be best if the filmmakers skipped ahead and put this behind them.
I can't remember my PIN code!