While I was somewhat curious about the Saw sequels, I also had the feeling that they wouldn’t be all that good. The first two movies in the series were good, but Saw III was a step down for me. So going into Saw IV, I didn’t have high expectations and I guess that at least helped me prepare for it. The easiest description I can give for IV is that it’s just another Saw movie. Some of the entertaining elements are back, but its familiar faults are also back, and additionally it doesn’t really do much differently.
Saw IV falls back on familiar tropes in the series, with flashbacks, traps, random new characters, twists, tape recordings, fast cuts, and a needlessly intricate plot. The movie starts off pretty well. Spoiler warning for Saw III if you haven’t seen it already, but it opens with the autopsy of John Kramer AKA Jigsaw to confirm that he is in fact dead and didn’t survive through some twist. There’s a lot happening in this movie, there’s like four plots happening all at once. Unfortunately it doesn’t really spend enough time with any of them so they feel all generally feel underdeveloped. Additionally. Saw IV tries to serve as a sort of prequel to some of the previous Saw movies, while setting up sequels for a post John Kramer Jigsaw world. While I wouldn’t say that I was bored during the movie, most of the plot is uninteresting and leaps from scene to scene quickly. On one hand, it being fast paced means that doesn’t really drag, but it also makes it messy, especially as a lot of the time there is an overload of information thrown at the audience. The narrative on the whole is very messy. The story was unnecessarily intertwined and it is very convoluted, which is to be expected from the Saw movies at this point. However it is getting to the point where it’s becoming confusing.
The main plotline in Saw IV is about a police officer moving from trap to trap as he tries to save some people, similar to Saw III except the character isn’t locked in a basement and is free to give up at any time. This feels like familiar territory, and it is, and it doesn’t do really anything new with it. Pair that with an unengaging main character, and that plotline isn’t that good. Another plotline is a procedural crime drama with two FBI agents investigating the killings from Jigsaw. This was fine but not particularly tense or interesting either. As said earlier, John Kramer is now dead, so we have him appear in multiple flashbacks in this movie. These various extensive flashbacks detail more of Jigsaw’s backstory, largely through a character named Jill who’s being interrogated by the FBI. Now the Saw series is no stranger to flashbacks, but Saw IV takes it to another level and becomes very reliant on them, to the point where there is no balance between the past and the present events. To be fair I actually did like these scenes, and there’s so many of them that you almost wish the movie was just a full on prequel for Jigsaw. On top of that, the rest of the movie is Saw is on autopilot, so it was really the only interesting part. The characters on the whole were dull and not that interesting, and this movie introduces so many new random characters. With Saw III they also really started connecting all the movies’ plots tightly together. While some of the connections were interesting, this Saw timeline is so confused and bizarre at this point that you’re quite lost by the end. Twists are a staple in the Saw movies, but the twists aren’t that convincing this time around and don’t really work. At the end there’s one of those signature Saw plot twists and reveals but it doesn’t feel satisfying or deserved, not to mention it wasn’t exactly unpredictable. It just sort of sets up Saw V. The runtime is 90 minutes long, which I guess is at least better than making it 2 hours long like Saw III was. However as a result it means that in this time they have to cover over 3 plotlines, and as you can probably tell the outcome isn’t so great.
As usual Tobin Bell’s performance as John Kramer/Jigsaw does keep things together somewhat. As usual he’s a captivating screen presence and manages to sell even the most ludicrous of writing, and steals every scene he’s in. Unfortunately, much of the other characters and acting aren’t so good. The main character Rigg is played by Liriq Bent, he was a supporting cop character from Saw II. He’s a rather boring character, given little to do here except go from trap to trap. While he was a little more likable than Jeff from Saw III, at least he had a character or personality, I barely remember who Rigg was by the end of IV. On another note, you can see why some of the main characters in the other Saw movies are being tested, not really for this character. The reason why he seems to be tested is that Rigg busts down doors and tries to rescue people and they end up dying anyway (or something along those lines). It just seems like a rather contrived reason to have someone who was in one of the past Saw movies be the protagonist. Not to mention that Jigsaw’s ‘philosophy’ and ‘moral code’ already seemed shaky at the best of times and this case doesn’t help matters much. The movie also introduces some new characters with potential, including Scott Patterson as an FBI agent and Betsy Russell as someone who knew John Kramer personally, unfortunately they are very underdeveloped and not much happens with them, so again Jigsaw remains the only good character in this movie.
Saw II and Saw III director Darren Lynn Bousman returns to make this movie, and while I liked his work on those past movies, I’m not sure he was the best choice to helm a movie that’s trying to transition away from the John Kramer Jigsaw movies. There’s an effort made to keep the feel and look of the previous movies, and a lot of what you’d expect to be here makes a return. The cinematography oddly looks a little smoother and cleaner than Saw III, though as a result it makes the movie look a bit flat. Saw IV has many trap set pieces, no surprises there. However they are devoid of tension or horror compared to what came before in the past movies. I guess part of it is that instead of the traps mainly being there to teach someone a lesson, they are there to serve up another gory demise to someone who has no chance of surviving. In a lot of those cases, these people clearly won’t escape, and for the most part you won’t care if they do or not. That’s not even to mention that even the traps themselves are rather lacklasture and devoid of imagination. By Saw III it got to the point where the movies were starting to have gore for the sake of gore, but at least there was some level of impact that came from watching them. Saw IV’s traps aren’t as disgusting and horrible to watch, even if there’s still quite a bit of gore. I don’t think it’s just me being desensitised because I remember finding some of Saw III’s traps hard to watch. As for the whole ‘is Saw torture porn’ question, IV is closer to being that than the third movie, because much of the movie feels like a conveyor belt taking you from one trap to the next and just throwing obligatory gore on screen without having any sort of impact on you. Disappointing traps aside, the practical effects on the gore are still great. The highlight for me was the opening scene when an autopsy is performed on John Kramer and while I’m not expert on it, it really did look like an autopsy. As usual there’s some fast paced editing, and most of it can be quite annoying and bad, mostly very fast during tense scenes, especially during traps. With that said, there’s one moment when an interrogation scene is happening and it’s getting more tense, the editing just acts crazy for some reason. Additionally, the use of slow motion especially for big reveals were a bit silly. An odd editing choice this time around are the transitions between some scenes, either involving time periods or locations. A character might walk into a room or camera might pan a certain way, and then it smoothly cuts to a different scene. While practical and well done, these are very jarring. Charlie Clouser’s score is one of the only consistently good things across all these movies alongside from Tobin Bell, it still adds a lot and is satisfying especially during the tense moments and the ending.
Saw IV is yet another mixed bag of a Saw movie that gets worse the more I actually think about it. I liked Tobin Bell, the score, and the plotline with John Kramer’s past, but everything else felt flat. I actually do consider it to be worse than Saw III because it recycles stuff that has been done before, and more often than not was done better back then. If you liked Saw III and you’re up for more movies, then it might be worth checking out IV at least. Overall though, it just felt like more Saw for people who like Saw. While I didn’t dislike the movie, I hope it’s not just a series where each sequel is just a worse version of the last movie.