‘Saw’ sequel succeeds where original movie failed

Last year about this time I reviewed a little movie called “Saw.” I was charmed by its twisted inventiveness but felt that the ides were poorly realized in a bad script. It was the first feature released by writer/director Darren Lynn Bousman and writer/actor Leigh Whannell. The script was juvenile and seemed more concerned with being in-your-face than with telling a good story. Not to mention Whannell’s acting in one of the two lead roles was atrocious. Bousman and Whannell have learned from their mistakes, however, and with “Saw II” have delivered a psychologically unsettling and well-unified thriller.

“Saw II” concerns the further exploits of the Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell), a cancer patient who has devoted what’s left of his life to helping people appreciate their own lives by putting them in diabolical deathtraps. Jigsaw traps a small group of people in a house that is slowly being filled with a toxic nerve agent which will kill them in two hours. Hidden throughout the house are syringes full of antidote, but to get them the victims will have to do all sorts of horrible and self-destructive things. In the meantime, our protagonist Det. Eric Mason (Donnie Wahlberg) is trying desperately to save them. Mason is especially desperate because his delinquent son, Daniel (Eric Knudson), is one of the people trapped in the house.

Last year’s “Saw” fell short for me partly because it raised a complex philosophical issue and refused to address it. The Jigsaw Killer is supposedly helping people, but he’s a sadistic psychopath. The original film never explored this idea, and ended with the Jigsaw Killer outsmarting and killing everyone. The second film operates in a very different way. Mason locates Jigsaw early in the first act, and the two are face to face for much of the movie. Bousman and Whannell dive headfirst into the ideas they only skirted in the first film and explore them fully. The ending is far from happy, but in “Saw II,” the groundwork is handled in such a way that the ending feels inevitable and is ultimately satisfying.

“Saw II” is surprisingly well-written, considering the adolescent cynicism that permeated the first one. It seemed like the “Saw” script was written by punks that were out to prove something. Whannell and Bousman have settled down, and here are entirely focused on telling a story. Now that they have achieved a little success they seem to have shifted their focus from shocking audiences to making a solid film. “Saw II” takes its time, respects its characters, and develops its story in a fairly believable way. Also, Whannell’s not in the movie, which helps a great deal.

“Saw II” only works if you can buy the premise, and therein lies its biggest problem. The concept of the Jigsaw Killer is absurd. He’s a human being with near-supernatural powers. He can craft insanely complex traps by himself and orchestrate all sorts of kidnappings, and has a preternatural knowledge of his victims’ lives. But he’s a dying cancer patient. For the first 30 minutes of “Saw II,” I was caught up in thinking about all the reasons I didn’t buy the Jigsaw Killer, then I just accepted it and moved on.

Now that all of their concepts are working properly, Whannell and Bousman have hit on a very compelling terror. The Jigsaw Killer plays on fears that are not usually addressed in horror: the fear of failure and a wasted life. He preys on people who have squandered their potential and don’t appreciate their lives. This is the perfect monster to stalk a generation that some have cynically dubbed “the slacker generation.”

I looked forward to hating this movie. I had a great time tearing up the original, and anticipated another opportunity to tear into an irritating and incompetently made film. Instead I saw a thought-provoking exercise in philosophy and human psychology.