SPOTLIGHT ON: The ‘Saw’ franchise

Welcome to Generic’s Spotlight feature, where we shine the spotlight for a fortnight on an actor, genre, theme, soundtrack, or anything else that takes our fancy – and truthfully, and however harshly, give our thoughts and opinions.

20.03.13 – 03.04.13


To understand the Saw series, all you have to do is look at the production company’s logo. Before each film, the words “Twisted Pictures” are ensnared by coils of nasty-looking barbed wire. Then they are impaled by a metal spike. Then the metal spike is rotated, tightening the wire and gouging deep scars in the poor letters. In less than ten seconds, this animation encapsulates the series’s infamous modus operandi: horrible pain is inflicted with low-tech tools, and we’re forced to watch. Twisted.

But think about the other meaning of the word “twisted”: as in, “full of twists.” This is far and away the most plot-heavy, convoluted horror film series ever. It’s not an exaggeration to say you stand no chance of understanding the later films without having seen the earlier ones, preferably only days before. Seemingly minor characters return in later films, suddenly thrust into the spotlight. We flash backwards and forwards, revisiting the events of past films from multiple angles. And through it all, there’s the killer’s teasing insistence that he’s building to SOMETHING; that each death is another piece in a master plan.

The people who know the Saw movies only from the advertisements assume their appeal is the twisted traps. But for the fans, it’s the twisted PLOTLINES that has us counting the days until Halloween.

[Note: Saw spoilers follow in great quantities. Since I’ve found the series enormously entertaining, I advise anyone who’s not fully up to speed to bookmark this page and come back when you’re Sawed up.)

If you’re a Saw virgin who ignored my warning and kept reading, first of all, don’t try that stuff with Jigsaw. It tends to end poorly. Secondly, you’re probably thinking, “C’mon Jamie, they pumped out a Saw sequel every Halloween for the seven years running. The only way you make movies that quickly is if you’re letting the interns write them. How tightly-plotted could these films possibly be?” Well, here are some examples:

  • In Saw III, we see a character read a letter and burst into tears, shortly before flying into a homicidal rage. We don’t learn who wrote this letter until Saw IV. We don’t learn what it said until Saw VI.
  • Saw III shows us the five minutes immediately after the end of Saw IISaw IV shows us what happens immediately after THAT.
  • Saw IV actually takes place during the events of Saw III, which is only revealed when a character from Saw IV literally walks into the final scene of Saw III, about two seconds after the previous film cut to black.
  • Saw V picks up about thirty seconds after Saw III.
  • You see the traps from Saw I being set up in flashback sequences during Saws III and V. You see the traps from Saw II being set up in flashback sequences during Saws III and V. You see the traps from Saw III being set up in flashback sequences during Saws V and VI. And I’m not talking about merely reusing footage – I’m saying that the latter movies recreated earlier sets and brought back actors who were chronologically deceased, to show us new information about things we’d already seen.
  • After the credits of Saw VI, you see something that took place between the events of Saws II and III.
  • Did I mention that the main villain, Jigsaw, dies at the end of Saw III, and yet the events of all the subsequent movies are planned by him? And no, there’s nothing supernatural about it.

There is no other horror film series that comes anywhere close to this kind of unified narrative. The Friday The 13th and Nightmare On Elm Street movies weren’t building off previous installments. The Final Destination movies, released concurrently with the Saws, were basically a series of remakes. The Scream movies had some continuity, but they certainly weren’t that complex. Generally when it comes to slasher flicks, you keep the villain the same, but rotate in a new cast of pretty young lambs to the slaughter. The guys behind Saw didn’t get that memo.

I think to understand the Saw movies, you have to consider another cultural phenomenon that came on the scene in 2004: a little show called Lost. The lesson everyone in Hollywood took from JJ Abrams’ runaway success was that audiences could be enthralled, not repelled, by huge mysteries that unfolded over years. The fans gathered online to obsess over theories and details, the more obscure the better. The Saw producers took this lesson to heart, and built the Saw sequels to be full of twists, complete with Lost-esque flashbacks and lots of loose ends. Want to know what’s in that mysterious wooden box that Jigsaw leaves for his ex-wife? Tune in next year.At the end of Saw I, Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes’ character) staggers away, dragging his bloody stump behind him, to bring police to the Bathroom of Doom in time to save Adam, whom he’s just shot (if you haven’t seen the movie, that sentence will seem strange). We know from the discovery of Adam’s rotted body in Saw II that help never arrived. However, we don’t learn what actually happened to Dr. Gordon after he left that room… until Saw VII (aka Saw 3D: The Final Chapter), when Cary Elwes makes his triumphant return. The series moves forward by looping backwards. This is the kind of thing that drives Saw fans crazy.

Now, I don’t mean to give anyone the impression that the Saw series is a masterpiece of screenwriting craftsmanship. Clearly, when they made Saw I, the creators didn’t know that Jigsaw was working with the assistance of two, maybe even three accomplices. Saw II started out as a completely non-Saw-related story before being adapted into a quickie sequel. This kind of after-the-fact plotting leads to some inconsistencies that can’t be explained away. For instance, Jigsaw explains in Saw III that he despises murderers. But Amanda Young’s trap in Saw I requires her to murder. As part of Dr. Gordon’s trap, his wife and daughter are supposed to be killed if he fails. These make for dark “What would YOU do?” thrills, but there’s no way to square them with the Jigsaw we see in later movies. For instance, in Saw II, even though it seems like Detective Matthews’ son is in mortal danger, he turns out to be perfectly safe all along. Jigsaw might use the innocent as pawns, but he never makes them victims.

But even if every detail doesn’t add up, it’s worth celebrating how this series swings for the fences, when it doesn’t really have to. The studio would have totally accepted, and perhaps preferred, a series in which each installment stood on its own. Certainly, if you watch the trailers for these movies, they’re always marketed as, “It’s Halloween – come see some sadistic traps!” But the producers either believed that a complicated plot would hold an audience’s attention after the novelty of the traps had faded, or they just wanted to do it even though they didn’t think it was a smart business decision. Either way, I tip my creepy clown mask to them.

But the narrative complexity is only half the story. There’s also the surprising depth to the villain, John Kramer, aka Jigsaw. Horror movie bad guys usually fall into two categories: psycho killers (Michael Myers, Leatherface) and vengeful ghosts (Freddy, Jason, the creepy girl from The Ring who continues to haunt my dreams). Jigsaw was designed to be something new.

First of all, he’s not some impossibly strong, hard-to-kill monster. He’s a dying cancer patient. In Saw II, he needs oxygen to carry out a conversation at his kitchen table. In Saw III, he’s completely bedridden, minutes from death. (The filmmakers do a great job making him unsettling precisely because he’s so weak and frail. He looks half-dead already.)

What makes Jigsaw something to be feared are the “traps” he puts his victims in (with the aid of apprentices, hired thugs, and people who are forced to set up other traps in order to escape their own). The original, titular trap is fiendishly simple. You are chained to the wall and given a saw. The saw is not sharp enough to cut the chains. It is, however, sharp enough to chop off a foot. “How much blood will you shed to stay alive?” Jigsaw likes to ask his victims. In later movies, the traps range from sadistically simple (a cop is told to reach into a beaker of acid to retrieve the key that can save her life) to goofy symbolic (a drug dealer is told to dive into a pit of hypodermic needles to retrieve the key can save his life) to needlessly complex (a carousel executes its six riders one at a time, but an observer is permitted to save exactly two by drilling holes in his hands). The series doesn’t have much humour, but at one point there’s a throwaway shot of Jigsaw on the cover of Civil Engineering magazine.So Jigsaw is a guy who likes to inflict pain, right? Nope. He doesn’t take any pleasure in his traps. In fact, he genuinely doesn’t want to anyone to die. “Technically speaking,” Cary Elwes explains in the first film, “he’s not really a murderer. He never killed anyone.” But he knows from his own terminal cancer and failed suicide attempt that confronting pain and death is the only true way to make someone appreciate life. The people who perish in his traps just didn’t value their life enough to fight for it, and were therefore unworthy of it. “Most people are so ungrateful to be alive,” he tells a survivor. “But not you. Not anymore.”

I would bet serious money that one of the inspirations for Saw was Fight Club (1999). At one point, Tyler Durden points a gun at the night clerk of a convenience store, drags him out back, and declares, “Raymond! You’re going to die.” He interrogates poor Raymond and learns that his dream was to become a veterinarian, but it was too hard. “I know where you live,” Tyler says. “If you’re not working to be a veterinarian in six weeks, you will be dead.” He lets Raymond go, and then muses, “Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond K Hessel’s life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted.”Jigsaw is Tyler Durden, without the abs or the sense of humor. He sees his traps as acts of mercy. He doesn’t want to hurt these people. He wants them to stop being crooked cops, loan sharks, philandering husbands, drug dealers, etc. He may put you in a death trap, but he is rooting for you to escape. Jigsaw believes that those who survive will be cured of their vices and redeemed through their suffering. (There’s something very medieval about these purification rituals, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he’s often seen in a hooded robe, like a monk.)

Jigsaw sometimes refers to the traps as “games,” but he also calls them “tests,” and the people inside them “subjects.” In other words, he’s performing experiments. He’s an engineer by training, and he sees the people he selects as defective machines in need of repair. Once upon a time, he worked with his ex-wife at a health clinic to heal people the old fashioned way. But fighting addiction and changing patterns of negative behavior is a grueling, uphill battle. John Kramer was determined to find a quick fix for a broken soul.

What fascinates me is, even after seven films, there is little or no evidence that Jigsaw’s traps actually “fix” anyone. First of all, the number of people who survive is vanishingly small. Here are the movies in which the main person being tested loses their “game”:  Saw I, Saw IISaw IIISaw IV, Saw VI and Saw 3DSaw V is the only film in which the some of the characters actually “win” the movie’s central test. And even then, these guys only survive the hard way, through massive bloodshed, as opposed to the easy way, simple teamwork.

The only person we ever see Jigsaw successfully “rehabilitate” is Amanda Young… and it turns out in Saw III that she never really changed at all. “Nobody changes,” she screams in her final moments. “Nobody is reborn. It’s all a lie.” In Saw VI, Detective Hoffman talks to a woman who survived by hacking off her own arm. “We were ruining people’s lives,” she admits, “And he wanted us to learn.” Hoffman, who had secretly set up the trap, can’t resist asking her, “And did you?” She blows up in his face: “Look at my arm! What am I supposed to learn from this?” She may decide to change careers, but she doesn’t seem particularly grateful to have been tested.So the jury’s still out. Are the movies suggesting that Jigsaw is wrong, and that these traps bring nothing but death and misery? Or do the movies pretty much buy into Jigsaw’s theory of rehibilitation, but the filmmakers find it too much fun to kill off everybody instead of allowing them to go back to night school and become veterinarians? I’m actually inclined to believe the latter. Jigsaw is always presented as possessing a nearly superhuman intellect. He somehow knows every detail about his victim’s lives, even secrets he has no way of knowing. He designs intricate, escape-proof traps that always operate flawlessly. He anticipates every possible outcome, leaving an endless supply of little tape recorders one step ahead of the police officers chasing him. This character isn’t supposed to be some deluded fool who doesn’t realize how pointless his actions are. He’s supposed to be the ubermensch.

Jigsaw’s master plan has never been a secret. “What is the cure for cancer?” he asks Detective Matthews in Saw II. At the end of the film, Amanda Young answers for him, “By creating a legacy, by living a life worth remembering, you become immortal.” In Saw IV, he leaves a tape from beyond the grave: “By hearing this tape, some will assume that this is over but I am still among you. You think it’s over just because I am dead. It’s not over. The games have just begun.” What does it add up to? Jigsaw isn’t merely out to test as many people as he can before he dies. He’s out to make sure the tests continue after he dies. The survivors aren’t his legacy; the traps are. As long as they continue, he’s achieved his immortality.

I love how the revelation about Dr. Gordon in Saw 3D suddenly makes a lot of the old traps more plausible, since they would have required medical expertise. For instance, in Saw II, there was the guy with the key behind his eyeball. Nobody questioned the plausibility of this at the time, since you’ve just got to assume Jigsaw is impossibly clever at choreographing this stuff. But in retrospect, yeah, okay. It’s like how after Detective Hoffman was revealed to be an apprentice, Saw II suddenly makes more sense, since it requires knowing the secrets about how Eric Matthews was framing people for crimes. Jigsaw could never have know this, but Hoffman would have, obviously. Hell, in retrospect, the detectives should have been asking themselves, “Wait, how DOES Jigsaw know what he knows?”

One theory I had about Saw 3D before it was released was a Cult of Jigsaw. This didn’t QUITE happen, although there were nods to it. (At the end, Dr. Gordon goes after Hoffman with two accomplices. This is now officially Project Mayhem.) But then I wonder, what’s the deal with the opening trap, which takes place in public? My guess is an earlier draft made more use of this. No other trap, ever, has taken place in public – there’s got to be a reason. And never mind that – how the hell did Dr. Gordon set that up? Who rested that space? Who rigged it? Why aren’t the police looking into it? And that brings me to…

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? What kind of a Jigsaw is Dr. Gordon going to be? First of all, Cary Elwes absolutely pulls off the creepy – that final scene was just great. But let me point out a few things he’s doing that Jigsaw wouldn’t:

  1. Not all his traps are fair. Bobby has no way to save his wife, which means that Gordon is straight-up murdering her. Jigsaw wouldn’t have done this.
  2. Dr. Gordon wipes out a whole SWAT team. Once again, Jigsaw was very clear about not directly killing people, and certainly people he wasn’t testing. I think Dr. Gordon is going to be a lot more comfortable with collateral damage than his mentor.
  3. Like I said, the trap unfolding in the public square must mean something. Either it’s Dr. Gordon’s idea, or Jigsaw left instructions to start raising the profile of these games. Either way, it’s something new.

Finally, this movie kind of punts on the Big Question of, “Do Jigsaw’s traps really help people?” In Bobby’s survivor group, one survivor feels empowered, while another seems disgusted with the very idea that anyone could be transformed by this experience. More disturbingly, it’s becoming clear that a large number of people who Jigsaw tests subsequently assist with the testing of others. In other words, being tested by Jigsaw may make you a “better” person, but it also makes you a psychopath.

I’m now of the camp that Jigsaw’s traps don’t improve anyone’s life. We never see any Jigsaw survivor quitting their job to help the homeless, spend more time with their kids, or finish a novel. All that survivors seem to do is inflict pain on others. It’s a contagious disease. Jigsaw once described his work as being about rehabilitation, but I ain’t buying it. This is about punishment. He’s not helping these people; he’s just making them pay a horrible price for their sins.



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