A Grand, Unifying Theory of Saw‘s America

Movies Features Saw
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Searing images of severed fingers and hacked-off feet onto the retinas of uneasy audiences since 2004, the Saw franchise has long since assumed its place as a decade-defining American horror story, though the release of this week’s Spiral: From the Book of Saw proves there may be some meat left on its broken, twisted bones.

Broadly concerned with the arcane and brutal antics of the Jigsaw Killer, a demented master engineer prone to ensnaring his victims in deadly traps, the Saw franchise has stayed true over the years to a thematic interest in both perverse violence and the moral philosophies of survival that it can illuminate. However fiendish Jigsaw’s devices, they’re constructed to test individuals whom the killer—originally John Kramer (Tobin Bell), a terminal cancer patient—believes are ungrateful for their lives. Unfolding amidst an international debate around the morality of torture, as the United States rebounded from the victimhood of 9/11 by perpetrating untold atrocities throughout the War on Terror, the franchise has also taken on a fierce political charge.

The series’ ninth entry, Spiral arrives 17 years after the original. A reimagining more than a direct sequel, with Chris Rock in the lead role of a detective hunting a Jigsaw copycat, the film seeks a more modern resonance, trapping corrupt cops in its rapidly escalating “games” while questioning whether sadistic vigilante justice can reform a broken system.

Whether it reinvigorates the franchise or not, Spiral’s arrival speaks to the remarkable staying power of a series first conceived by James Wan (Insidious, The Conjuring) and Leigh Whannell (Upgrade, The Invisible Man), then two Australian film school graduates looking for a high concept they could shoot on the cheap. The Saw franchise is typically held up as a progenitor of ‘00s horror cinema’s so-called “torture porn” craze, though Wan and Whannell have historically taken issue with that label, given its often dismissive associations. (For another example of a rich text branded as torture porn, see Eli Roth’s Hostel series, a ferocious treatise on xenophobia that finds Americans abroad abducted and tortured by a ring of professional European sadists). Watching the first entry, it’s easy to see why Wan and Whannell feel the term short-sells much of Saw’s initial appeal.

Opening on two men chained up in a bathroom with a body, a gun and a tape recorder between them, their film may introduce Jigsaw’s fiendish traps, but it unfolds as a puzzle-box suspense thriller, wringing more tension from the questions raised by its main poster’s severed foot (Whose? How? Ew?) than actual depictions of bodily carnage. And, relatively bloodless as the initial Saw is, the film steers clear of fetishizing any violence Jigsaw orchestrates. (As laid out in Saw II, Kramer himself derives no pleasure from the suffering of those caught in his traps; he believes rather that his methods, however medieval, are necessary to cleanse his victims of moral impurities, bringing him far closer to a kind of libertine fundamentalism than fetishistic cruelty.)

As the Saw franchise found its audience stateside, subsequent entries ventured further into goremeister territory, introducing increasingly elaborate contraptions in which Jigsaw could test a series of pitiful yet eminently disposable characters. The viscerality of these films surely struck a nerve with audiences who felt horror had become too glib and self-consciously meta. (Indeed, upon its release, and owing to its shoestring budget, Saw became the most profitable horror film after Wes Craven’s 1996’s Scream, which had opened a path to self-referential slashers like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend.)

But it’s likely the political landscape into which Saw was released that has more to do with its runaway success. In 2004, when the first film hit theaters, the United States was still absorbing the traumatic impact of 9/11 and its aftershocks. A terror attack that shattered the illusion of homeland security many Americans had previously considered sacrosanct, 9/11 soon plunged the country into a faceless War on Terror—a seemingly endless, quagmire conflict in which the Bush administration approved the use of torture to extract information from prisoners it often wrongly believed were withholding it. Images of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay dominated news headlines as the first two Saw films cemented the start of a sickening new franchise. No one could have predicted just how closely the films’ grisly tableaux would parallel shocking photographs of detainees sadistically chained, abused and humiliated by the American military and intelligence community. Equally galling were government figureheads’ attempts to downplay the brutality of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation methods.” As the U.S. government sought to justify torture as a means to an end, audiences flocked to theaters in order to see Jigsaw do the same. (Those ends differed dramatically, of course, given that even Jigsaw sought in his twisted way to heal victims, not humiliate them.)

Themes of surveillance and voyeurism are as intrinsic to Saw as its traps and high body counts. The distended cultural horror of 9/11, it should be noted, came in part from watching the attacks from bystanders’ transfixed perspectives; unfolding across disparate, incomplete, kinetic fragments of footage shot by those in the area at the time, the attacks were the first global tragedy of the digital era. To watch Saw is to see Jigsaw’s victims as he does: Through the lens of a camera that records their struggle to survive from a fixed, impassive distance. It’s worth considering what those victims perceive, many in their final moments: Their judge, jury, and executioner, represented by sinister toys and sharp tools, a moral authority disembodied and made omniscient through a series of screens and symbols. Even the experience of watching such dimly lit depravity could saddle the viewer with a somewhat guilty conscience.

On top of their sickening violence and voyeuristic qualities, the Saw movies further a grimly nihilistic worldview that makes their horrors all the more visceral. A mechanical engineer, architect and self-styled theologian long before his heel-turn into sadism, Kramer constructs traps that refashion old machinery parts into homemade torture devices. Generally staying within the parameters of what could be gathered from a Home Depot and scrapped together in the privacy of one’s lair, their jerry-rigged ingenuity and rusted realism mirror the franchise’s grungy tone. (Let it not be said, however, that the filmmakers lack a sense of humor about the improbably elaborate complexity of some of the more Rube Goldbergian mechanisms: Jigsaw is at one point pictured on the cover of Civil Engineering magazine.) Typically populating such traps are a series of corrupt health care professionals, crooked cops, cheating husbands, scummy drug dealers and even neo-Nazis. Not always society’s bottom rung, but certainly never its most model citizens.

Aesthetically, too, the Saw franchise’s decaying industrial settings—an anonymized, seemingly endless series of dilapidated bathrooms, warehouses and corridors—heighten its sense of societal rot. It’s the kind of anguished, Slipknot-indebted heavy metal aesthetic that may have resonated with audiences grappling with a darkening outlook on the country, even before an economic collapse that would further shatter illusions of American exceptionalism.

Given all this discussion of the films’ grimly despairing tenors, what are we to make of the Saw franchise’s enduring popularity at the box office? Many film scholars have noted that this century’s horror audiences appear to experience a particular kind of release in seeing profound brutalities enacted on screen. For today’s increasingly anxious audiences, beset by endless coverage of violence and terror from even the news organizations not bent on fear-mongering, it’s perhaps most freeing to imagine evil as a more easily defined (and thus contained) force. As expressed through the Saw franchise and many of its genre brethren, violence is not as random and rampant as it can often feel in modern life. Instead, through Jigsaw’s games, it takes the form of a specific test, administered with cruel logic to distinct and occasionally deserving targets by a singular, ideologically coherent entity. Spectating from our seats, we can relish the queasy bloodsport of it, knowing we’re far enough removed not to risk becoming players ourselves. At the same time, the franchise opens up unnerving hypotheticals. Would you torture another to save yourself? Can these violent means be justified in pursuit of some greater good? If you went into one of Jigsaw’s traps, how much of you would come out?

As the Saw movies progress, one of their most fascinating additions is the cult of personality that forms around John Kramer, cementing his appeal as a morally twisted messiah sent to punish the ungrateful and depraved. Four apprentices—five, counting his widow Jill Tuck—reveal themselves over the course of the franchise, each carrying out their own versions of Jigsaw’s games, but crafting traps that in some way undercut his legacy. (Amanda’s traps, for example, are elaborately designed but often inescapable, as she grows to believe her victims wouldn’t change even if they survived.)

Insidious though his methods are, John’s theological approach to torture was rooted in his desire to make others recognize the value of their lives by any means necessary. But as the Saw franchise whirs and buzzes along like a gore-splattered chainsaw, it’s become abundantly clear how frequently surviving one of Jigsaw’s traps turns victims into villains, none of whom have the precisely twisted temperament necessary to play by their mentor’s rules. They share his fanaticism, perhaps, but not his philosophy, trading out ideological conviction for a cheaper, simpler bloodlust. Saw: 3-D’s support group of Jigsaw survivors includes one who feels grateful for his test, but more often the survivors that the franchise comes back to are those inspired by their tormenter’s example. In a post-Trump era, as the United States grapples with the fallout of a political movement built on blind loyalty and fomented violence, the franchise’s latter-day focus on disciples, especially those outsourcing their morality to a fearless leader, bears notice.

The direction of the franchise has made clear that, as in the real world, Jigsaw’s designs only fuel further violence, doing little to prevent it or contribute a net good. If the original Saw films found a chilling mirror in a political administration that tortured at will while deeming itself a grand moral arbiter, their evolution has charted the confused and lingering impact of that administration’s self-contradicting policies. In their shift to Jigsaw’s disciples, the films address the mixture of devotion and more guttural hatred his “tests” inspired in those subjected to them. As many Americans have grappled in recent years with seemingly endless revelations of their country’s malevolent impact abroad, some have doubled down in jingoistic fervor, while others have recoiled in horror.

As Spiral: From the Book of Saw reimagines the franchise with a new insignia that references the old red swirls, a freshly modified vocal drone suggesting a homicidal Marvin the Robot, and even a different puppet (so long Billy, hello murder-pig), the message is clear: There’s a new sicko in town, with updated priorities. And if we’re to take the subtitle at face value, they’ve done some light reading. But as Spiral eventually elucidates, this copycat has a reason all their own for targeting cops (one John Kramer may have punctured with a few choice words, or worse).

Spiral’s series of deadly traps pay homage to the original films, often very directly, but they’re in service of a new kind of moral crusader, whose ideas for reform involve severing spinal cords, ripping fingers from hands and enlisting some “good apples” to help slice up the bad. This is perhaps as it should be. The new film’s fascination with placing corrupt cops inside its deadly traps carries on Saw’s vision of vigilante justice served bloody, now that the next generation can strike back and collect their pound of flesh from a new group of potentially deserving victims. Jigsaw’s long since dead, you see, but his legacy is everywhere—at least the severed parts of it another sadist deems worth saving.

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston, who’s been writing professionally for seven years and hopes to stay at it for a few years more. Frequently over-excited and under-caffeinated, he sits down to surf the Criterion Channel but ends up, inevitably, on Shudder. You can find him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.