Saw II (2005) **½
Saw II really pissed me off. It isn’t exactly a rare occurrence for a modern horror movie to do that, I grant you, but Saw II’s methodology is, if not exactly unique, then certainly extremely unusual. Most movies that earn my ire do so by sucking offensively with every fiber of their being, but not this one. In fact, for 80 minutes or thereabouts, this sequel is much, much better than the original Saw. It addresses or at least works around the great majority of the complaints I had with the first film, to an extent that is all the more remarkable considering that Saw II began life as a completely unrelated screenplay entitled The Desperate, which director Darren Lynn Bousman wrote years before the success of Saw convinced two competing sets of producers that it might be worth filming. (One assumes that Lionsgate ultimately offered Bousman a better deal than the folks who were hoping to film The Desperate straight as a Saw cash-in.) Or maybe that isn’t so remarkable after all, because where Saw II goes so infuriatingly wrong is in the element most obviously attributable to returning co-writer Leigh Whannell— an ending even more asinine and implausible than the first movie’s, which the sequel does even less to justify than its predecessor.
John Kramer, the Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell once again), is still at large and still up to his old tricks, inoperable cancer or no inoperable cancer. This time, he’s abducted a habitual snitch named Michael (Noam Jenkins, from Walled In and The House Next Door), outfitted him with a Headsmash-o-Matictm similar to the one we saw in the last movie (but working in the opposite direction), and surgically implanted the key that will release the device inside the orbit of the victim’s right eye. All Michael has to do in order to save his underutilized life is to dig his way to the key with the scalpel that Kramer has helpfully provided, but that requires a bit more gumption than the informant turns out to possess. The detective running the show at the investigation is Kerry (Dina Meyer, of Starship Troopers and Star Trek: Nemesis, whose character is a much more significant presence here than she had been in the previous film), the department’s self-appointed Jigsaw expert, who has a troubled relationship with another cop by the name of Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg, from Dreamcatcher and The Sixth Sense). (It’s implied that Kerry and Matthews had an affair at some point while they were assigned to each other as partners, and that their below-board romance was the primary factor in destroying Matthews’s marriage.) Matthews initially thinks Kerry is just busting his balls when she calls him in to look over the scene of Michael’s demise, but the other detective has her reasons. Jigsaw must have had something specific in mind when he scrawled “Look closer, Detective Matthews” on the deathtrap’s ceiling, right?
Matthews discovers what that specific something is when a logo stamped into part of the Headsmash-o-Matictm leads him, Kerry, and a SWAT team under the command of a uniformed cop called Rigg (Lyriq Bent, of Skinwalkers) to the disused factory where Kramer has his current headquarters. (It’s something of an open question whether this is the same place he was using in Saw— which would require the police to have forgotten or discounted Detective Tapp’s success in locating Kramer’s hideout earlier— or whether there’s just that much abandoned industrial real estate in whatever city this is supposed to be.) Kramer, interestingly enough, is not only at home, but in no hurry to get away when the police arrive— although that oxygen tank and IV drip he’s lugging around these days would tend to make hurrying rather difficult no matter who was at the door. As is his wont, Kramer has several of his “games” running concurrently at the moment, and Matthews is to be the key player in one of them. The detective has a son, you see, a rebellious teenager named Daniel (Erik Knudsen), and his relationship with his kid is every bit as troubled as that between him and Kerry. As a bank of video monitors in Kramer’s control center reveals, Daniel is one of eight participants in a second game going on elsewhere in the city. These unfortunates (who, as usual, were unfortunate of their own volition long before Kramer ever got to them) are locked in a house which Jigsaw has been slowly but steadily flooding with a nerve gas whose stated symptoms strongly suggest that neither Bousman nor Whannell has any idea what nerve gas actually does. They’ve got about two hours left in which to find the several antidote doses that Kramer has hidden around the house before they all succumb; those who succeed will go free when the automatic lock on the specially reinforced front door pops open an hour after that. And Matthews? Well, he’s got the one person who knows for sure where Daniel and the others are right in front of him, but the only way he’s going to get the information he needs to mount a rescue will be to give up being the upstanding, ethical sadsack he is today, and go back to being the evidence-planting, suspect-brutalizing, procedure-flouting Cop On the Edge that he was five years ago, back when he still gave a shit about his work. That’s going to mean roughing up a cancer-ridden old man, in full view of pretty much the whole department, and handing the deadliest perp in recent memory a police misconduct defense so ironclad that it might as well be a Get Out of Jail Free card. Then again, Kramer also claims that Matthews will see his son again safe and sound if he just hangs out chatting with the killer for long enough, and while it seems awfully difficult to credit that statement in light of what the video monitors reveal, Kramer’s modus operandi makes it awfully likely that he’s telling at least some version of the truth. Decisions, decisions…
But to turn our attention to the house for a bit, the stakes for Daniel (and, by extension, for his father) are even higher than Kramer has let on thus far. The other seven captives include a brutal drug pusher named Xavier (Franky G, of The Devil’s Tomb); a clever career thief called Jonas (Glenn Plummer, from Showgirls and Vegas Vampires); Obi (Timothy Burd, from City of Shadows and Repo! The Genetic Opera), the con artist and kidnapper whom Kramer suborned into handling the current round of abductions, just as he levered Zep Hindle into being his trigger man for the caper against Lawrence Gordon; and three presumably petty criminals about whom we never really learn much of anything: Addison (Emmanuelle Vaugier, of Cerberus and Fear: The Resurrection), Laura (Beverley Mitchell, from The Crow: City of Angels and Killing Obsession), and Gus (Tony Nappo, of Revelations and Land of the Dead). The eighth player in this parallel game is somebody we’ve seen before. It’s Amanda (Shawnee Smith, from The Blob and the late-90’s Carnival of Souls, also returning as a much bigger deal than she was previously), sometime wearer of the original Headsmash-o-Matictm, and the one person to date who ever passed one of Kramer’s sadistic tests— whose subsequent conduct we may presume the killer to have found disappointing. Kramer’s traditional tape explicating the rules and objectives of the game mention in passing that the eight captives were not randomly selected, and that all of them have something important in common. That thing, although none of them recognize it yet, is Detective Matthews. Daniel, as we know, is the cop’s son; each of the others owes at least one of his or her several incarcerations to false evidence planted or trumped-up charges orchestrated by Matthews during his Dirty Harry period. Matthews himself is initially in the dark about that, too, but Kramer, helpful as always, has left a dossier containing all the relevant information about Daniel’s fellow players for Matthews, Kerry, and the rest to find in his control center. Wouldn’t it be interesting if one of the captive criminals figured out who the boy locked up in the house with them really was? And given that this is John Kramer we’re talking about, you just know he’s hidden a clue to Daniel’s identity someplace inside that old building.
Saw’s greatest weakness was its mishandling of the Jigsaw Killer; the rigorous avoidance of such mishandling is Saw II’s greatest strength. Starting with the small stuff, it helps pull Jigsaw just a little closer to the real world when the sequel reveals that the house where Daniel and the others have been trapped is connected via its basement to the industrial building containing the bathroom where Adam and Dr. Gordon faced their ordeal however long ago that was. If the killer is reusing locations, then there must be a limit after all on his ability to find exactly what he needs, anywhere he needs it, any time he feels like playing a game. Also, that damned stupid pig mask is nowhere to be seen until the very end of the film (when so many catastrophic fuck-ups are going on at once that the mask specifically doesn’t much matter), and with John Kramer now suffering so much more visibly from his illness, the satin robe makes a certain amount of sense— I mean, who really expects a man that sick to change out of his pajamas when company comes over? On a more serious note, Matthews and Kramer’s half of the film is exactly what should have resulted from Tapp and Sing’s attempt to bust Jigsaw in the first film. Whereas all we got last time was one quick throwaway line about the disease that is slowly killing Kramer and its role in motivating his crimes, Saw II turns the confrontation between cops and killer into an occasion for the kind of in-depth examination that the character deserves. We get at last a sense of who John Kramer really is— of the keen intellect that devises these deadly tests of the human survival instinct, and of the titanic arrogance that allows their creator to see them as a worthy and indeed even moral pursuit. And because that examination is made in an adversarial setting, with Kramer explaining himself to a man who came to arrest him, Whannell and Bousman commendably convey the impression that we are not meant to accept uncritically the killer’s transparently self-serving version of his own aims and history. When Matthews accuses Kramer of feeding him the same line of bullshit that he always hears from pathological killers eager to communicate the importance of their life’s work, it may be obvious that the detective isn’t really listening to his foe, but it’s equally obvious that Matthews is in an important sense right.
Another major improvement in Saw II is the much tighter integration of the two parallel plots. The previous movie had at least one more plot thread than it could accommodate comfortably— Lawrence and Adam attempting to escape captivity, each with his own mostly separate back story; Tapp’s obsessive quest to capture the Jigsaw Killer; the Gordon family’s travails as hostages to Zep Hindle, who was himself hostage of a sort to Jigsaw— and they didn’t so much tie together as cross one another at what might as well have been randomly selected points. The intertwinement of the sub-stories here, by contrast, is inextricable. Matthews’s duel of wits with Kramer could not unfold the way it does without the game in the house to set the terms of the engagement, while the latter contest would be meaningless without the participants’ histories with the detective looming in the background. Impressed as I was with the clever contrivances whereby the Saw writers imparted significance to every little detail of the film, I was always conscious of those contrivances as they arose. Saw II, although just as compulsively tidy, comes by its tidiness honestly and organically. Until the horribly misguided conclusion, it shows not a trace of the forced quality that marred the original Saw even in its best moments.
I guess it’s about time I delved into that horribly misguided conclusion now, isn’t it? It was very difficult to talk meaningfully about Saw without giving away the ending, but with Saw II, it’s the next best thing to flat-out impossible. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, but want to, then I strongly recommend you stop reading right now, and just remember not to say I didn’t warn you when it pisses down its leg in the home stretch to the closing credits. I’ll even leave a few lines of blank space for you, so as to prevent your eyes from landing on the big secret by mistake:
No, really— are you sure you want to know?
Okay, fine. Here it is: Amanda turns out to be Kramer’s accomplice! This is so totally wrong-headed a denouement that I’m almost speechless in the face of it, and it’s all the more vexing because it seems superficially defensible until you actually think about it.
Remember, the last thing we heard from Amanda after she told her story in Saw was a meek admission that “He helped me.” It’s a troublingly ambiguous moment, and one of the best in the entire film. Now it is revealed that Kramer continued to keep tabs on Amanda after her escape, and that he visited her again when she attempted suicide by slitting her wrists. At first, we’re encouraged to believe that this backsliding into whatever cloud of existential gloom led her to take up heroin while she was incarcerated is the reason why she’s locked in the house along with the others; Kramer’s stern lesson in gratitude evidently didn’t take, so he’s sending her back to school for some remedial studies. That accords perfectly with what we know of Kramer’s character, so we never think to question the interpretation until the moment Amanda springs Kramer’s final trap on Matthews. What really happened, though, was that Kramer rescued Amanda from herself the second time in a manner that most of us would be much more comfortable describing as rescue. Recognizing how little time was left to him, and more convinced than ever of his project’s importance to the human race, he got Amanda patched up, and then took her under his wing as an apprentice so that the work might continue even if he himself did not. There are several problems with this scenario. First of all, we already know from the last movie what a low opinion Kramer holds of suicides, and how unforgiving he is in general of human weakness. Consequently, this outpouring of paternal solicitude for Amanda is absolutely the last thing we might plausibly expect from him. Meanwhile, it’s no more credible that Amanda would embrace the man who once forced her to choose between dying and becoming a killer, no matter how conflicted her feelings about the ordeal might have become in its aftermath. The official position of both the characters and the screenwriters may be that Kramer gave Amanda a new appreciation for life, but the very fact that she wound up slashing her wrists scant weeks later demonstrates that he did no such thing. There are way too many unanswered questions here for this turn of events to work as a surprise ending, but that’s exactly how Whannell and Bousman spring it on us. If your “shocking twist” is shocking primarily because it doesn’t make any fucking sense, then you’re doing it wrong. Furthermore, the clumsy writing at the end is matched by even clumsier direction. It was bad enough, at the end of Saw, when Adam started flashing back to stuff he hadn’t been around to witness in the first place. Saw II goes that one sillier when it first repeats the mistake, then apparently invites another character to join Matthews in his flashback, and finally brings in so many other characters that we’re forced to conclude that the movie itself is having flashbacks! What starts out looking like Matthews suddenly recognizing all the wrong turns he’d made on the way to his sure-to-be-horrible fate turns out instead to be a completely non-diegetic edited highlights reel designed so that even the dimmest viewer will be able to catch up. That’s some artless shit right there, the kind of thing that would be excusable only from a Third World filmmaker working in a country that had no indigenous movie industry until about last Wednesday. Rolling it out as part of the capper to as good a picture as Saw II had been for most of its length is quite simply an insult to the viewer’s discernment and intelligence.