SAW III represents a huge tonal shift for the SAW series. Whereas the first two films straddled the fine line between thriller and horror, SAW III abandons all pretense and fully embraces the horror genre. It’s intriguing how different SAW III feels from the previous films, even though it is a direct continuation from SAW II. The difference is that it has a gratuitous amount of blood and gore. In the first two films, the bloody results were rarely fully shown. Even the infamous scene where a man saws his foot off is surprisingly light on blood. Yet in SAW III, audiences are treated to scenes of brain surgery, limbs twisting until bones pop out, ribs being ripped out… and it all unfolds right before our eyes. It’s actually somewhat disappointing. The heavy use of gore somehow makes the film feel like it is catering to a lower denominator.
SAW III takes place mere minutes after the conclusion of SAW II, tying it so closely to that film that it doesn’t really work as a standalone. But it’s great to see the continuity of the films all tied so well together as characters that appeared in the first two films again appear for the third installment. SAW III almost feels like it could have been the final film in the SAW series – particularly because it ties up a lot of loose ends and is so connected with the other two films. But it does set up new mysteries that are not resolved in this film, continuing the notion that the SAW series is a set of interconnected films.
Like previous SAW films, SAW III is split into several plots that run parallel. One plot follows Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) and his apprentice, Amanda (Shawnee Smith). Jigsaw is dying of cancer, and to aid in his recovery, Amanda kidnaps Dr. Lynn Denlon (Bahar Soomekh). As Lynn navigates the complexities of helping Jigsaw, another plot unfolds involving Jigsaw’s game. In the game, Jeff Reinhart (Angus Macfadyen) navigates through a series of tests designed to help him come to terms with the grief he has lived with following the death of his son in a drunk driving accident.
Although the idea of a grieving man coming to terms with his grief by encountering those that have wronged them sounds good in theory, I found it executed fairly poorly. Part of that is due to Angus Macfadyen’s portrayal of Jeff. In the film, Jeff is so haunted and angry that it is virtually impossible to identify with him. Every hesitation he makes, every action he ultimately takes – even every bit of dialogue he has – just seems off. It doesn’t seem genuine. Add to that the simple fact that Jeff is never in any danger, and much of the tension from his scenes vanish. The exciting part of the SAW films has always been that the victims of Jigsaw’s games are in danger – always mere moments from death. By removing that part from the equation, it robs those scenes of urgency.
Easily the strongest part of this film is Jigsaw’s relationship with Amanda. Once a victim of his sadistic games, Amanda is now set to take up the mantle of Jigsaw. But Amanda isn’t a perfect carbon copy of Jigsaw. The whole purpose of Jigsaw’s games is that he gives his victims the opportunity to win – if they escape, they can go free. But Amanda doesn’t subscribe to that theory. She rigs her games, making them impossible to survive. It goes against everything that Jigsaw believes in – against everything that the SAW series has drilled into the audience. This leads to a meaty performance from Tobin Bell, who plays the role of Jigsaw to perfection. Even at death’s door, Jigsaw is defiant. We see it in his actions, just as we see it in his flashbacks. SAW III utilizes flashbacks to great effect, not only to showcase the history between Jigsaw and Amanda, but also to lay out more motivation for Jigsaw’s actions.
As is standard for SAW films, SAW III unleashes a few twists at the end as the iconic SAW theme (“Hello Zepp”) reaches a roaring crescendo. The twists are, again, very solid. In fact, one in particular is completely shocking. The SAW films aren’t without their own issues, but they do consistently nail the ending. SAW III continues that tradition, managing to be equal parts satisfying, maddening, and shocking.