Jigsaw (2002) *½
The movies that Full Moon has been releasing in conjunction with Tempe Entertainment of late perplex the hell out of me. It has long been apparent that Charles Band has little interest in anything that can’t be spun off into a damnably long-running series designed to sell shitty, overpriced action figures, yet most of the filmmakers working under the Tempe banner care so much about character development that they forget to put a story into their movies half the time. The two sensibilities just don’t seem compatible, and judging from the Full Moon/Tempe films I've seen (fuck you, Hell Asylum) they really aren’t in practice. Jigsaw is about the starkest example of this philosophical disconnect that I’ve yet encountered, with the first 50 minutes given over entirely to an onerous septuple character study and the final 25 spinning off into the usual Full Moon bullshit before smacking headlong into an abrupt ending that resolves absolutely nothing.
We begin with what might just be the longest opening scene I’ve ever borne witness to. It’s almost the end of the semester at Harvest Junior College, and an art professor named Collin (Barrett Walz) is assigning a final project to one of his classes. Well, the filmmakers say it’s a class, anyway— despite a few piteous attempts to convince us otherwise, it is blatantly apparent that only five students are in the room, and not one of them is portrayed by an actor noticeably younger than their so-called professor. Regardless, the project is exactly the kind of horseshit that would have been assigned in the one art class I took while I was in college, so they’ve managed to get one thing right at least. Each of Collin’s five top students is to be given an appendage from a department store mannequin, which they will have a week to decorate entirely according to their whim. The point of this exercise— “Jigsaw,” as Collin calls it— is to get a feel for the collective subconscious of the class. Like I said, it’s exactly the sort of crap Dr. Klanck used to come up with. Now as it happens, the building in which Collin’s class is held is scheduled for fumigation on the day when the class would ordinarily be meeting next, and because these are the elite students we're talking about, Collin proposes that they get together instead at a little bar outside of town called Sneaky Pete’s. Then, having assembled Jigsaw, they can take him out into the wilderness behind the bar and have their own little Burning Man Festival.
Sneaky Pete’s is where most of the movie takes place, and the great bulk of it is spent on character exposition. Collin, we learn, has recently divorced his wife, and is now seriously on the make for his star female pupils. The oldest of these (and thus the least favored— but only by a little bit) is Louise (Maren Lindow), who is miserably married to a truck driver named Art (David Wesley Cooper). Art is one of those people who positively revel in their own ignorance; he resents and actively opposes his wife’s efforts to improve herself by getting an education. The youngest of the girls is Val (Mia Zifkin), to whom Collin is most strongly attracted. She, for her part, kind of likes Collin too, but her best friend and classmate, Eddie (Arthur Simone), warns her to steer clear of the teacher. Not only is it just never a good idea to try dating a man who controls a little piece of your academic record, Eddie is able to see through Collin— as he tells Val, “He’s a scumbag pretending to be a nice guy.” Eddie, meanwhile, is by his own admission “a nice guy pretending to be a scumbag,” and I personally think his pretense is pretty convincing. He and the other boy, Todd (James Palmer, of Cold Hearts), will provide the lion’s share of the constant bickering without which no Full Moon/Tempe production would be complete. Eddie thinks Todd is an idiot, and maybe he’s right. But Todd strikes me as much more honest, authentic, and trustworthy than his classroom nemesis, and I bet I’d get along with him much better even though Eddie seems like he shares more of my interests and outlook on life. The last of the students is Todd’s sort-of girlfriend, Tawny (Aimee Bravo). Tawny is the only other character with a backstory of comparable depth to Louise’s, but that backstory is so over the top that it rings false to me even despite the efforts of writer/directors Don Adams and Harry James Picardi to load it up with convincing detail. She and her sister, Kimmy, had both been sexually abused by their father when they were in their early teens, and the two of them had made a suicide pact when Kimmy decided she couldn’t take it any more. Tawny chickened out, though, when she saw her sister demonstrate the effect of a twelve-gauge shotgun on the human head, and thus it is that she is alive today to attend Collin’s stupid class. One also assumes that this history of sexual and emotional trauma goes some way toward explaining the openly predatory sluttishness that she exhibits today. In any case, all this comes out while Jigsaw is being assembled, each student telling his or her story while presenting their finished limbs. And as promised, when all the pieces are in place, Collin leads his students out back to burn Jigsaw, touting the act as a symbolic purging of past pain from all their lives.
But this is still a Full Moon movie, so we’re going to have to have a killer toy in here at some point. That point comes when, for absolutely no reason whatsoever, the burned-up Jigsaw regenerates itself, comes to life, and begins stalking and slashing his creators, harvesting their limbs to create a Jigsaw effigy of its own. I’m not entirely sure why it also kills Art and Sneaky Pete (Vengeance of the Dead’s Mark Vollmers), as doing so leaves it with a couple of spares and neither man had anything to do with Collin’s art project in the first place. Neither do I have any idea at all what to make of the ending, which leaves Jigsaw still up and about, together with a lone human survivor, but which gives not the slightest indication of why that survivor has been allowed to live. Although considering that nothing else in this movie’s final act makes any sense, I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised.
To put it briefly, Jigsaw has “student film” written all over it, despite the fact that both of its writers and directors are Full Moon/Tempe veterans. The emphasis on the personalities and backgrounds of Collin and his students— to the exclusion of virtually everything else— makes the movie feel like a film school project designed to teach would-be filmmakers how to do character development. Meanwhile, the painfully low budget (probably something less than $40,000, if other contemporary Full Moon/Tempe productions are any indication) adds to the impression that we’re dealing with something that was never meant to be seen outside of a college auditorium. It’s a damned shame that Jigsaw’s plot is such a throwaway, because Adams and Picardi really do have good ears for dialogue, and would almost certainly have gotten A’s if this had been a character development exercise for a class in filmmaking. Most of the unknown nobodies in the cast also acquit themselves well with the material Adams and Picardi have given them. But none of that can fully counterbalance the problem that Jigsaw just isn’t a movie in the sense that most of us use that term. It goes nowhere, addressing none of the points it raises along the way, and it’s quite a struggle to get through it despite a running time of less than 80 minutes.