There are few who would argue that Saw V wasn't a misstep for the series, but rather the obligatory dot needed to connect Saw IV - complete with the promise of Hoffman's future test - to Saw VI where that test truly begins. Thankfully, however, in this latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the recently deceased serial killer known as Jigsaw, the story feels more purposeful, more engaging and generally back on track with the intricate mythology that the series began to build with Saw III. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that the series isn't starting to show some signs of fatigue, consumed by its own weighty continuity and trying desperately to juggle the machinations of four complicit characters - Jigsaw, his wife, Hoffman and Amanda - each with their own competing ideologies.
It's a lot to handle for a series that constructs its own chronology as it goes, but a quick shift into more topical territory makes Saw VI one of the better offerings in the series. The topic? Health care. Or, more specifically, the moral (or immoral) responsibility of insurance executives to determine who lives and who dies. When the head of one such company - a man who years ago turned down Jigsaw's request for experimental cancer treatment - finds himself at the center of the killer's latest game, he'll be forced to make that determination on a much more literal level. Guided through a maze into large, industrial chambers where his colleagues and co-workers - some more guilty than others -- have been thrust into deadly traps, William must make a terrible choice at each turn, deciding who will walk away alive.
Meanwhile, as the game continues under Hoffman's watchful gaze, a character from the past returns with evidence that might incriminate Jigsaw's surviving apprentice - ironic, considering that Hoffman just spent most of Saw V dealing with the exact same situation. Add to that Jill, Jigsaw's widow, carrying out the mysterious final steps of Jigsaw's master plan and you've got a film with a lot on its mind.
Writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton do a solid job reminding the audience of past events and spinning them in intriguing new directions, but with so much plot to wrangle, we're hard pressed to find any real, relatable characters anywhere within the Saw universe. Clearly, we're meant to sympathize with the victims, but when both the players and those who control the game are each, in their own way, corrupt, there's little incentive to truly immerse oneself in the story. There are only ever people to root against, not for, and given the structure of the series, we can only ever feel for the victims on the most visceral of levels. In truth, there hasn't been a victim since Dr. Denton in Saw III who's been given enough time and development to demand some level of connection or understanding.
But let's be honest, emotional resonance isn't what most audiences are flocking to the theater to see. They want traps - twisted, violent, blood-letting traps - and Saw VI delivers in excess. The opening trap fails to offer a satisfying pound of flesh and there's a sequence in a steam room that seems a little counterproductive. But the traps consisting of a carousel, a breathing apparatus and a pair of barbed-wire nooses clearly rank among the series' best. Director Kevin Greutert, previously an editor on the series, much like production designer David Hackl before him, continues to rein in the excessively frenetic style brought to the series by Darren Lynn Bousman, who guided the franchise during Saw II, III and IV.
For a first time director, Greutert does a solid job, helping to keep the story clear, the suspense high and the gore particularly gory. But the visual similarity between Greutert's chapter and Hackl's offering - clearly culled from Bousman's influence - makes one wish that the series might expand its visual palate just slightly. After all, between the narrative and visual continuity, the series is beginning to feel like a singular 12-hour film. Any little touch to make the experience feel fresh each time around will no doubt help audiences stay connected to the material and prevent their attention from drifting amidst all the sameness. That said, the planned 3-D for the next installment isn't the kind of change we're talking about.
Overall, Saw VI offers fans a tighter, faster, bloodier, all-around better experience than previous entries, but it also represents the tipping point for the series, after which, without some creative refreshment, the next two chapters will no doubt feel like millstones around the neck of an otherwise worthwhile series. With four potential villains all existing between modern-day and omni-present flashbacks, Jigsaw's message is becoming far too muddled. The characters are weakening; visually, the films are becoming stale; and the traps feel all too familiar. While Saw VI certainly offers a redemption for the series and the promise of a coming power struggle for Jigsaw's legacy, Saw VII will no doubt mark the time to either shake things up or watch this franchise get the ax.