When James Wan’s Saw was released in 2004, it changed the modern horror genre. Gone were the days of relying on supernatural scares, as a new sub-genre of torture porn was ushered in. The danger with this is how filmmakers can raise the stakes in subsequent entries in the genre: the only logical way is to ramp up the violence. To an extent, Darren Lynn Bousman’s Saw II falls into this trap: this is nowhere near as character-driven or nuanced as Saw, but it still has an intriguing plot and some solid performances nonetheless.
The outstanding factor of Saw II is Tobin Bell’s performance as Jigsaw. In Saw, he was more of an atmospheric presence, without too much physical presence, but in Saw II he becomes one of the key players, which really allows Bell to prove his worth. Returning screenwriter Leigh Whannell knows just how to write for Jigsaw: he comes across as utterly ruthless and deplorable, but also incredibly endearing. The backstory given to Jigsaw is logical and interesting – with a nice nod to Dr. Gordon from 2004’s Saw – and his interaction with Donnie Wahlberg’s Mathews is gripping. Bell was born to play Jigsaw – and the presentation of the killer here is a logical and fascinating development from the original.
As with the development of Jigsaw, the use of violence in Saw II seems like a logical development from the 2004 original. Of course, it’s necessary to raise the stakes in a sequel to sell tickets, but the transition into torture porn isn’t overt here. Granted, some of the traps here are genuinely horrifying, and there’s such rampant tension afforded by a solid soundtrack from Charlie Clouser, that it’s honestly hard to watch at points, with the opening eye trap in particular having some disturbing implications. That said, Saw II doesn’t overdo the nastiness as its sequels do. There’s no denying this is a far more visually gruesome film, but thankfully the film’s climactic action scenes rely on more traditional on-screen violence, so the ultra violence that could’ve been heavily relied on doesn’t overstay its welcome. Saw II teeters on being gratuitously violent, but never quite reaches this stage – but it doesn’t bode well for future entries, which too will have to raise their stakes.
The first Saw movie is famed for its third-act twists, and Saw II manages to execute twists of a similar degree with success. Some of the big twists of Saw II feels slightly more plausible than that of Saw – the kind of thing you could predict if you pay close enough attention, which makes for a layered viewing experience. The implications of the final third-act twist, in that Shawnee Smith’s Amanda is working with Jigsaw, is fascinating and shocking, but Whannell’s screenplay doesn’t have enough character depth so that the reveal could actually have some gravitas. Amanda’s twist doesn’t seem like the logical step in her arc: the little we do know about her is seemingly disregarded to afford for this twist, and Smith’s performance in the final reveal is slightly too shallow for this to fully pay off.
Perhaps it’s the nature of Saw II that lets it down the most. While it is a strong horror-thriller for the most-part, it’s easy to tell it wasn’t originally written to be a sequel to Saw. It lacks the character-driven narrative that made the first Saw so engaging: the violence wasn’t the main motor of tension in Saw, but rather the characters’ backstories and interactions, but that is lost here. Characters are underwritten, and some are rather poorly-acted, and by increasing the number of people playing Jigsaw’s game, it’s harder for viewers to invest in them. There are attempts at character-driven plot threads – all the victims being linked by Wahlberg’s Mathews had the potential to be a well-explored and fascinating plot element, but it’s revealed too late to explore the ramifications of it.
While a serviceable horror-thriller with some strong action, intriguing twists and a standout performance from Tobin Bell, Saw II lacks the character-driven, nuanced narrative that made Saw stand out from the contemporary horror genre. It manages to tell an interesting story that certainly arises enough interest to want to see a sequel, and there are some really satisfying ties to the first entry, but it strays too far away from what made Saw a success.