With Saw VI, we see the surprising sight of a long-running franchise trying to dig itself out of its own grave. Clearly intended to either be the final Saw film or at least a finale to the second three-film arc, the picture goes out of its way to tie up loose ends, retroactively explain awkward story points, and sweep away dead weight. By once again returning the focus to its core dilemma ('how much blood would you shed to save yourself or others?') and its key character (John Kramer once again takes center stage), this sixth chapter inexplicably works as a solid horror film and a skewed morality tale. Most tellingly, Saw VI is actually almost good enough to make you glad that the series didn't end after Saw III.
There will be no plot synopsis, other than to say that the film again picks up right at the end of the previous film, and that the surviving characters all return. First of all, I can't imagine anyone jumping into the franchise sight unseen at this point. The fans are either already invested in the long-running John Kramer mythology, or they don't care a whit about plot. Newbies will be absolutely confounded, as the series makes the fifth season of Lost look easy to follow. Second, one thing I have appreciated about the series is that, because of the complete lack of preview screenings, and the spoiler-free marketing campaigns, the Saw films are among the few major movies that I can go into relatively blind. I'll give you the same courtesy.
What makes this film work better than the previous entries is that both of its narratives are compelling and genuinely suspenseful. That's right, for the first time in history, a Saw picture actually has tension and suspense. The reason for this is two-fold. First of all, the lingering plot threads from the previous series are dealt with in a subplot that has Jigsaw accomplice Detective Hoffman desperately attempting to cover his tracks following his murderous actions in the last two pictures. While Costas Manylor is not the world's most engaging screen presence, the plot does place him in the always entertaining position of a lawman being forced to investigate crimes that he actually committed. Second of all, the trap-related portion of the film takes the franchise in a whole new direction. Unlike previous films, where Jigsaw targeted drug addicts, general lowlifes, and police officers who just plain cared too much, this time John Kramer targets a specific industry (health insurance) and the film lays out a specific philosophy (let's just say I wouldn't be surprised if someone snuck Harry Reid a copy of the film over the weekend). While John Kramer never explicitly endorses single-payer health care in the several flashbacks, the film certainly stands against the bureaucracy that is our current system. While the film's moral world is as fuzzy as ever (the film does not believe that all innocent bystanders are equal), it's genuinely disturbing to catch yourself actually rooting for Kramer purely because of political and moral agreement.
Best of all, for arguably the first time in the series, pretty much every trap has the distinct possibility of survival for at least one participant, creating palpable suspense over who will live and who will die. By putting multiple people in peril each time around, the picture gets to have its cake (characters are truly forced to make choices) and eat it too (traps do go off so you get your cup o' gore). And, like the superior Saw II, the threat from the traps is a quick and brutal death, rather than slow and painful violence. There is plenty of gore (more than Saw V, but less than Saw IV) and a token amount of suffering, but the film never lingers on the carnage longer than it has to. And the film benefits by once again putting John Kramer (the invaluably classy Tobin Bell) at the heart of the narrative. By making this set of traps uniquely personal and mainly keeping Hoffman in a different subplot, the film amazingly creates the illusion that you're watching Kramer himself running the traps this time. That's no mean feat for a character who died three films ago.
Saw VI still has many of the problems that have plagued the series from the get-go. The moral worldview of the franchise has always been completely absurd (characters are supposed to learn lessons from their experiences, but many are either killed or traumatized beyond repair) and the film spends too much time flashing back to previously unseen moments from the prior sequels. But even that crutch is more effective this time around, as we see the return of familiar faces and the retroactive explanation for story turns dating back to the very first film. If you're not a fan of the Saw franchise, this film probably won't make you one (for one thing, it's impossible to follow if you haven't seen every prior film, preferably twice). But it's a breath of fresh air for those who had followed the series since the beginning, a return to the series basics of insidiously clever traps and solid character actors squaring off (Peter Outerbridge gets several solid moments with Tobin Bell as an old friend of John Kramer and his wife). If this is to be the last chapter, it's nice to see the game ending on a high note.