Here we are, several hours after my screening of Darren Lynn Bousman’s Saw II, and my erection has yet to subside. Admittedly, the strength of said hard-on is not nearly as powerful as during the first film of this series, but the depravity, filth, and sadism on display continue to make me excited in their own special way, especially given that the film never tries to be anything else. As with the initial Saw, the sequel is all about games, clues, and nasty, brutish ends to miserable human lives, and while the novelty has worn off a bit, there’s a great deal of mirth to be found nonetheless. The opening bit — a pathetic young man with a locked (and lethal) contraption on his head has sixty seconds to dig out the key from behind his own eye before he is killed most heinously — is a keeper, and while several others die in graphic fashion throughout the film’s 93 minutes, none are as original in their twisted glee. At a time when mere bullet to the head or knives to the heart are barely enough to stifle yawns, stories featuring previously unseen techniques of slaughter give hope to those who have started to believe that the joy had left the end of life altogether. Above all else, Saw II says that what we need in the face of the undiscovered country is laughter, applause, and if need be, arousal, not the usual casual indifference.
Saw II is, of course, the story of Jigsaw, a terminally ill cancer patient who kidnaps the morally unfit (or merely those who do not appreciate life), puts them together in a room, and gives them hours to live. And yet, each and every victim has the opportunity to escape, provided that they use ingenuity, cunning, and most importantly, take Jigsaw’s clues at their word. Both films are a lesson in taking people literally, as Jigsaw is one of the few killers who doesn’t deal in rhymes and cryptic announcements so much as obvious instructions. Because people assume that Jigsaw is speaking in poetic pronouncements, they over-think the situation and do more damage than if they had kept to the obvious. If he says not to use a particular key, don’t use the bloody thing. The man who ends up losing half his head to a gunshot is a painful lesson in stubbornly ignoring reality. Sure, this is a game (how will these folks get out of here?), but in retrospect, we chuckle at how apparent everything was, and how we too would have made the same mistakes — probably because we’ve seen to many movies about crafty serial killers and their wild schemes.
Here, the victims must find an antidote to the lethal gas that is pumping throughout the house in which they are trapped, and the combination to a safe containing their liberation is said to be “in the back of all your minds.” Uh-huh, exactly — this means that each person has a number written on the back of his or her neck, only no one finds this out until things become truly desperate. This development also leads a man, having acquired all the numbers save his own, to carve off a patch of skin on his neck because he is unable to locate a reflective surface on which to see his own number. The ad hoc surgery is but one of the many revolting sequences to be featured here, although much time passed with very little blood being shed. Perhaps wall-to-wall brutality would not have been very “scary,” but I’m far from expecting genuine chills at the movies anymore. Failing that, I want the worst that human beings have to offer. So when a man is smashed on the back of the head with a nail-studded bat, I’m all smiles. Or when a chick jumps into a pit of hypodermic needles and crawls out looking like a giant pin cushion, I’m nodding with pleasure. And when another babe falls for an obvious trap and ends up with her wrists being slashed to ribbons by razor-sharp glass, I wink at the screen, feeling kinship with a director who believes there is no finer art than putting unsympathetic creeps through absolute hell.
The story also turns on the character of Detective Eric Mathews (Donnie Wahlberg), a bastard of a cop who has to deal with an ex-wife, a nasty son, and now, Jigsaw himself. Because Mathews has beaten suspects, planted evidence, and been an overall shitty human being, Jigsaw has kidnapped Marky Mark’s brother’s son, placed him in the house with the others, and asks only that he listen to him speak. If Mathews does as he asks, his son will be returned “in a safe and secure place.” Pay close attention to those words and remember what I said about taking Jigsaw at his word. Of course, Mathews acts irrationally, flies off the handle, and attacks Jigsaw in his usual manner. Because Jigsaw is dying anyway, he’s not overly concerned, and he gets what he wants by watching Mathew’s anger blow the one chance he had to save his son. Sure, this is exactly what Kevin Spacey’s character did in Se7en, but it’s not important when the film isn’t high art to begin with. Setting people up like ducks in a shooting gallery may not require the bard’s pen, but the simplicity of approach is refreshing when so much of what passes for entertainment tries to be edifying, or at least heartwarming. Here’s a film that knows that after a pleasant dinner, what we want to see above all else are ex-cons coughing up blood, having violent seizures, and getting their throats slashed with dirty blades. For people of my ilk, it’s like a walk in the park on a sunny, cloudless day. With balloons!
As the film drags its bloody stump towards the concluding scenes, we know that all is not as it seems, and when cops find the house, it will not be the right place, and what we thought was “live” was actually a recording. And Mathews will also get a taste of his own medicine, setting up the inevitable sequel that will be forced by what promises to be a reasonably spectacular box office take. Unfortunately, for all the film’s grimy, uncompromising vision, it doesn’t have the guts to kill the one character we’d most like to watch suffer, because there still seems to be a Hollywood taboo against the on-screen death of a child. It seems odd to shoehorn a sense of decency into a movie guided by such dripping misanthropy, but that’s how we live in these United States. Pro-life, anti-government zealots who orgasm during state-sponsored executions, conservative economists who excuse record deficits, and free market maniacs who attribute high gas prices to supply and demand, yet are dumbfounded by the billion dollar porn and drug industries — these are the same folks who will blast Saw II for its lack of decency; it’s cold-hearted exploitation of human weakness and frailty, all while ignoring the need for such images in a presumably democratic society. For as bad as this garbage is, it is precisely because it is indefensible that I choose to embrace it. Someone must, after all, lest we yield even more ground to those for whom every action, every word, every waking second, must be for “our own good.” At a time when no one has the courage to admit they’re full of shit, especially those in high places, here’s something that checks all delusions at the door. Somehow, that’s enough.