SAW IV is the point in the SAW franchise where the films become impossible to view without having seen the previous films. It makes for compelling storytelling, to tell a sequential story that builds upon the previous films, but it also runs the risk of alienating more casual viewers. SAW IV is certainly in a difficult position. The climax of SAW III sees Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) murdered, and SAW IV opens with his gruesome autopsy (shot with a brilliant use of color to make the red blood stand out).
As with past SAW films, SAW IV is split into two separate storylines. One storyline focuses on Rigg (Lyriq Bent), a familiar police officer from the earlier films. Rigg is distraught over the disappearance of his friend Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) that occurred during SAW II, and soon finds himself as an unwilling contestant in Jigsaw’s games. Rigg is told that, if he completes his test, he can save Matthews. It’s the meatiest role yet for Rigg, but I never particularly found his actions in the film to be entirely believable.
The second (and more interesting) storyline focuses on two FBI agents, Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson) and Lindsey Perez (Athena Karkanis) that arrive to assist the police in the Jigsaw investigation. There’s plenty of crime scene investigation with officer Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), but there’s also a nice focus on the interrogation of Jigsaw’s ex-wife, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell). The new characters are all strong additions to the cast, particularly Strahm and Tuck. Scott Patterson plays Peter Strahm with a manic drive, and he is absolutely compelling in every scene he’s in. Betsy Russell, however, plays Jill Tuck with an understated grace. There’s clearly many layers to her character, hidden just beneath the surface.
The SAW films are no stranger to flashbacks, and SAW IV is no different. As part of Jill Tuck’s interrogation, the film showcases additional Jigsaw flashbacks. Tobin Bell is phenomenal as Jigsaw, and despite his character’s death, the flashbacks are great way to continue to get more of his character. The film digs deeper into his motives and background, and really shows the birth of Jigsaw. It’s really interesting to watch, and adds additional layers to the character.
Rigg’s test really stands out in the SAW series thus far, because Rigg’s test isn’t confined to a small space. He’s free to move around throughout the city – but a tight timeline keeps him on track. As Strahm comments at one point, the test seems designed to recruit Rigg. It’s an interesting notion – one that ultimately isn’t explored much beyond that initial comment. In the first three SAW films, we see a variety of games – all supposed to help victims learn a lesson through some kind of self-harm. But Rigg’s test doesn’t have that aspect, and it feels different. It feels fresh, yes, but it also feels out of place in the world that SAW has presented.
The gore has definitely been dialed back in SAW IV. Aside from the autopsy at the film’s opening, the film doesn’t really showcase much in the way of gruesome injuries – although there’s still plenty of blood. In fact, the traps in general feel like an afterthought. Instead, the strength of the film lies in the investigation by Strahm and Perez – hitting as close to a thriller as the SAW films have gotten so far.
The SAW films are very low budget affairs, but SAW IV has a noticeable upgrade in quality. The world feels more alive. Rather than setting the film in dark and dirty rooms that are removed from civilization, SAW IV is set in places that feel real – and it also includes a lot of scenes that take place during the day. It makes the world of SAW more believable, but it also has a tendency to strain suspension of disbelief as a result.
One thing that I was disappointed in was the twists of SAW IV. The biggest reveal was made with no real fuss. It was a twist worthy of the iconic SAW “Hello Zepp” track, and instead, the huge twist is just presented with little commentary – to the point where reexamining the film in light of the twist almost becomes a headache. The film’s final moments get the “Hello Zepp” treatment – and it’s a twist that is very underwhelming. The clues are sprinkled throughout the film, and it honestly isn’t that hard to deduce. The filmmakers definitely tried something new with the twists, but it ultimately fell flat.
SAW IV has a difficult needle to thread. It serves to bridge the gap between the first three SAW films and future installments by providing closure for the remaining characters from the films and revealing a new antagonist. It isn’t always successful, and the Jigsaw traps certainly feel less inventive in this installment. However, strong performances from the new characters and the excellent use of flashbacks keep SAW IV interesting.