Having inherited the mantle of the serial killer known as Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) tries to cover his tracks while executing yet another elaborate torture scheme and staying one step ahead of FBI agent Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson) who survived his previous encounter with Jigsaw but may not be so lucky this time around. Like so many horror franchises of recent (and not-so-recent) vintage -- Halloween Friday the 13th A Nightmare on Elm Street -- the latest Saw doesn’t deviate from the formula. Endlessly repeating the same rudimentary elements may spell big bucks at the box-office forked over by the Saw faithful but even die-hard fans will be hard-pressed to find something even remotely new or inventive here. In what must be an effort to mix things up screenwriters Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan revise (i.e. screw around with) some of the earlier film’s plot twists with “new” flashbacks that offer different perspectives than was first depicted. If this is intended to provide surprise to the well-worn storyline it isn’t successful. It only makes a murky story even murkier. Jigsaw may have met his end at the conclusion of Saw IV but Tobin Bell is all over the place this time around seen either in flashback or on television screens. With his menacing whispery delivery Bell can hardly be accused of sleepwalking through his role but one suspects that the basic enticements for him here were top billing -- and the paycheck that goes along with it. The beefy Mandylor skulks his way through the one-dimensional role of Hoffman while Patterson brings a bit of intensity to his role as the dogged Strahm. Betsy Russell fondly remembered as a teen B-movie queen of the 1980s (Private School Avenging Angel) plays Jigsaw’s ex-wife while Meagan Good and Julie Benz (in an ill-fitting black wig) portray two of the latest “players” in the latest Jigsaw puzzle. Shawnee Smith Angus MacFadyen and Danny Glover who all met their onscreen ends in previous installments make token flashback appearances here -- to no discernible effect. Mark Hackl the production designer of Saw II – IV who was originally tapped to direct the fourth installment now makes his directorial debut. As one might expect he retains the decayed urban design of the previous films (which he of course designed) and there are the requisite gallons of gore and guts for those who enjoy that sort of thing. What would the Saw films be without such visceral pleasantries? But for all the technical ingenuity of some of the lethal booby traps there’s a distinct dullness to the proceedings. Saw V is appropriately gruesome but it’s not particularly exciting or suspenseful. As a Halloween scare-fest it’s all trick and no treat … and yes the door is left wide open for another installment. Enough’s enough already.
It’s already a bad day for Tom (Stephen Rea) an unemployed middle-aged business executive who’s about to enter the ranks of the homeless--but things are only going to get worse when the sun goes down. Brandi (Mena Suvari) a young nurse with a penchant for partying is driving home after celebrating an expected promotion when Tom crosses the street at exactly the wrong moment. Brandi hits Tom then rushes home in abject panic--all the while incidentally Tom’s body is stuck in her windshield and he’s still alive. While Brandi frantically dithers and deliberates how to extricate herself from this situation without consequences Tom is trying to physically extricate his broken body from Brandi’s windshield. What begins as a simple if unfortunate case of hit-and-run becomes a battle of wills between Tom and Brandi--one that crackles with intensity and irony. Both Suvari and Rea give tremendous performances. Rea's downtrodden dignity is enormously empathetic. His attempts to save himself--exemplifying his renewed will to live--are agonizing to watch but also rousing in their own way as this underdog fights against some pretty steep (and bloody) odds. Interestingly enough it’s also easy to empathize with Brandi’s predicament--for a time. Hitting Tom was an accident but when she goes into self-preservation mode Brandi’s actions become more and more horrific with the consequences growing exponentially. Suvari (also an associate producer) hasn’t had a role this good since American Beauty and she makes the most of it. There’s also a nice turn by Russell Hornsby as Brandi’s drug-dealing two-timing boyfriend Rashid who gets drawn into her scheme--much to his regret. Stuart Gordon whose H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator remains one of the premier cult films of the 1980s has lost none of his savage wit or his taste for dark humor. That this film is inspired by an actual incident only enhances its impact and its stinging irony. Truth is not only stranger than fiction it’s often stronger. Beyond the violence (sometimes extreme) and satire (sometimes overt) are some subtle yet potent observations about human nature--about not taking responsibility for one’s actions about not getting involved about covering up one’s mistakes. Stuck is not a preachy film but it’s frequently a penetrating one (no pun intended).