We see how Jigsaw can fail, again and again, to help anyone and still blame it on them. We see how people can live through how little his traps teach and still become fascinated enough to follow him. We even see how an audience can watch his whole world crumble in the most excruciatingly gory detail and still come away thinking he’s a genius. Saw is a damning portrait not just of its own failures, but how easy it is to not see them.
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I first learned about Saw (2004) the way I think everyone should learn about Saw: from a high school boy on a very smelly bus to a boring field trip. Saw absolutely needs to be presented the way high school boys present basically everything they’ve just learned about: as the most exciting and original thing in the history of the world. The smelly bus and the boring field trip also make sure you have nothing better to do than approach it with no skepticism whatsoever. Saw is not a movie that stands up well to skepticism.
Saw is often remembered as depraved torture porn for mindless blood freaks, but that wasn’t what we talked about. Sure, the first movie isn’t as bloody as all that, but there’s easily enough to shock high-schoolers. We could have whispered to each other about how gross cutting your own leg off was or what it would feel like to walk on glass. Instead, it was the concept that fascinated us.
As we told it, it came down to this: Jigsaw has cancer. He puts people into traps where they have to endure incredible pain in order to survive. The ones who make it gain the same appreciation for life that he has. They’re saved from the dreary monotony of everyday life.
Having actually watched them now, there’s a little more to the Saw movies than that, but not all that much. John Kramer, the Jigsaw Killer, is not the kind of character who becomes more complex as his story goes on. Like Freddy and Jason before him, he progressively simplified, drawing closer and closer to the summary that excited viewers. Personal details, like having a family or apprentices, got forgotten in favor of that simple formula.
Jigsaw values life, so he puts people in death traps. The people have to do something horrible to live, and they learn from it to love life.
I remember finding that premise not just coherent, but fascinating. I wondered if I would have the strength for it. It felt strangely easy to imagine myself just … not. Slumping my shoulders and waiting for the trap to finish me off quick. Then again, at times, I could also imagine myself facing it bravely. There was something intoxicating about the idea that I might have a secret strength, a power for living just waiting for an emergency to show itself.
Why did I find it so fascinating? I don’t think I could have told you then, and I didn’t think to ask the question.
I wasn’t the only one excited either. The rest of the bus felt the same way, and so did a lot of audience members. Internet comments back this up. A small sampling from a top ten list of best quotes from Jigsaw include “I admire John’s intelligence,” “This is true about people nowadays,” and “This one quote gives you his view of why he does this, and the importance of it.” None of the comments disagree with or criticize him, despite the fact that he is, and I can’t stress this enough, a fictional serial killer.
And that’s not because people are silly or unable to interpret a movie. It’s because they are interpreting the movie correctly. John Kramer is presented as fundamentally wise and intelligent. He never loses his dignity and the film never focuses on any of his negative traits. When his traps kill someone, the focus is always on how they failed rather than him. Even when he dies, he is fully in control. The writers know that what Kramer is doing is wrong, but they find his reasoning deeply attractive, and so does the audience.
And yet, if you actually think about it for even a moment, it’s a bizarre premise. What about a death trap is supposed to help people value life? How is gouging your own eye out going to help an informant learn the value of loyalty? If a man is struggling with a feeling of dissatisfaction with his life, is crawling through razor wire likely to make him happier?
There’s something important here. Audiences are attracted to what Jigsaw says despite nearly everything about it. His ideas don’t appeal to a casual, aesthetic interest, but to something deep and profound that a lot of people believe. This is why I think Saw is a valuable franchise to examine. The kinds of ideas being suggested are popular, but not polite to suggest; the frame of a horror movie, like that of a joke, gives permission to express openly the things that can only be hinted at in more “serious” work. The fact that Saw comes with posters of severed fingers next to the words “Oh, yes. There will be blood” makes it a uniquely safe way to express impolite but widely held beliefs.
Let’s start with a question. What does Saw actually think about the violence and murder it’s filled with? The obvious respect the movie has for Jigsaw might make you think it glorifies them. Some hardline conservative critics might have tried to read it that way (the website Christian Spotlight on Entertainment gives the film a moral rating of “Extremely Offensive”), but it’s more complicated than that. The movie knows murder is wrong. In fact, it knows this so well it even tries to pretend Jigsaw doesn’t do it.
In Saw V, Jigsaw proudly claims, “I’ve never killed anyone.” How does he reconcile this with the fact that the deaths he’s caused have already filled up five movies? Simple. He only made the traps. The choice to live or die was theirs.
Anyone who is even the slightest bit skeptical is gonna have a hard time with that claim, though. Out of the many, many people who die in Jigsaw traps, I can name precisely two who died because they were too afraid of pain to attempt their task. Every other person tries … and fails. Sure, some of them don’t try in very effective ways, but these tests are supposed to be about the will to live, not fine motor coordination. If the thought of death makes someone so panicked they flail around, isn’t that a will to live?
In fact, death is the outcome in the overwhelming majority of cases. There’s a whopping total of three characters who successfully escape Jigsaw traps. That is across nine movies, and also, all three of them die in different Jigsaw traps. Jigsaw’s traps don’t come with a small chance of dying; death is the base outcome, living the occasional exception.
But there is always a chance, right? Well, sort of. At one point, Amanda, one of the not one, not two, but three characters who are revealed in separate twists to be secret apprentices to Jigsaw, starts constructing traps that people can’t escape from. Even if you solve the puzzle, you die. Jigsaw is shocked by this, and puts her in a trap of her own for it, one that kills her. So you might think that’s a line Jigsaw won’t cross … except that in Saw 3D (the seventh Saw movie, not the third), he does. The final trap of that movie asks a person to recreate something he claims he did in an autobiography about surviving a Jigsaw trap. When he fails, it proves that the claim was impossible and the autobiography fake, but also, it kills his wife. In other words, she couldn’t have been saved. It looks like exactly what he punished Amanda for, and it’s something we’ll have to come back to later.
But speaking of having no chance of survival, there’s also the matter of the traps with multiple people. In some, they compete. In others, one is forced to kill another, or to select which of several people die. These traps reduce Jigsaw to claiming “Okay, I killed people, but never anyone in particular,” which is not exactly Clarence Darrow material.
I know what you’re thinking. Wow, it turns out the fictional villain of a slasher movie is actually bad. Real fresh insight there. This take’s so hot, I had to crawl through it in order to escape the furnace trap from Saw 2. But I’d argue this reveals something far deeper about the way Saw sees murder. It reveals that it knows murder is bad, but it doesn’t know why.
If you know why murder is wrong, you’re not going to be fooled by someone adding a few extra steps and meaningless complications to it. It won’t make a difference to you if you force someone else to do it instead of yourself, or add a machine that does it for you. The parts of murder that make it wrong are still there; it’s still murder. But if you know murder is wrong but not why, then even the smallest change can throw you off, because you don’t know which pieces matter. Saw fools itself because it objects to murder only on arbitrary, aesthetic grounds.
If you ask the average person why it’s wrong to kill people, and they keep talking to you long enough to actually answer, they’ll say it’s because human life is valuable. There are plenty of variations on this, but it all comes back to that basic idea. Saw rejects this. In Saw 4, Jigsaw says of a woman a character finds caught in a trap, “You view this person as a victim, but if you were to see what I see, beneath the mask is a criminal undeserving of the life she leads.” All of the victims of Jigsaw’s traps are treated as undeserving of their lives. We are shown their crimes and nothing else, nothing that could redeem them.
Later in that movie, the same character must choose whether to save or doom a man whose grotesque crimes have been photographed and papered over the entire room. He begs for forgiveness, but his pleas are drowned out by a television playing a video of those same crimes. It’s a scene that acts as a perfect metaphor for how the Saw franchise itself deadens any sympathy we might have for its victims. It is wrong to kill people, the films conclude, but it is not wrong for some people to die.
Does that sound like a shocking thing to read into a movie? It shouldn’t. Saw was made in America and America is a country that practices the death penalty. No institution could make that point clearer. The singular weakness of that moral position, which turns not killing from the foundation of a morality of life to an inconvenient taboo, is the heart of the gritty attitude underlying Saw.
So if the Saw movies don’t value human life, what do they value? What is it that makes someone so worthless they deserve death, or on the other hand, could make them worthwhile enough not to? On one level, the movie offers a bustling cornucopia of reasons people ought to die. Characters are put in traps that kill them for reasons ranging from sexual assault and murder to predatory lending and depression. You might as well ask what can’t make someone’s life not worth living.
But remember, Jigsaw says he doesn’t kill people. He says his traps are tests, and it’s something the movie never challenges him on. So what are his traps testing? Well, the one common feature of all of his tests is pain. A Jigsaw trap might be a complex moral dilemma or a simple manual task, but it will always involve pain. Pain, and the ability to suffer and resist it, is the heart of Jigsaw’s world.
So while there are countless reasons people are put in traps, there’s just one they don’t make it out: weakness. Weakness, in the face of temptation but especially pain, is the flaw every victim dies from. And if weakness is the one flaw, then strength is the one virtue.
The quality of “strength” that Saw loves so much resists any attempt to make it less general. On one level, it’s the ability to suffer pain, but it’s also something far broader. The strength it takes to cut off a limb is, to these films, the same as the strength to resist temptation and build a good life. If a person doesn’t have the strength to put a nail through their hand, they don’t have the strength to overcome their flaws. It’s the kind of vague quality you can accuse anyone of lacking for almost any reason. Just as conveniently, you can fantasize about having it yourself, if only the moment came for you to prove it. It’s the it in you’ve got it or you don’t, the something in just having something. It’s everything and it’s nothing, all at once.
And Saw isn’t the first place you’ve heard about something like that, is it? There’s a whole culture of influencers and entrepreneurs who’ll tell you it’s the quality that makes people rich. There’s another culture of dating coaches who’ll say it’s what gets you dates (especially if you’re a man). I’ve heard it come from teachers, therapists, politicians, and everyone in between. A classic poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox talks about “the people who lift and the people who lean,” but it’s just the same thing again. A mysterious strength, one some people have and some people don’t.
I don’t think we have to pretend we don’t know what this quality is, either. It’s masculinity. The writers know you’re not supposed to say that aloud these days, but that’s what it is: Jigsaw’s traps test for being tough and strong and therefore masculine. They test for someone’s place in a hierarchy of domination. It is because people have absorbed a lot of cultural messages that frame masculinity as the single important quality that they are able to make sense of what Jigsaw is doing and see him as wise rather than deranged.
We talked a little about what a skeptical person might think about when watching Saw. But what about someone who’s grown up in a culture that values masculinity? A skeptical person is puzzled when they see Jigsaw claim to heal people by torturing them. But someone who’s been taught to value masculinity sees trials that force people to be tough, and therefore masculine. They’ve been taught to suspect that maybe toughness really is all it takes to solve complex problems like addiction or finding lawful employment. A trap that forces someone to be tough, even in the most literal way, makes sense as a cure when taken with those messages.
Remember the seemingly hypocritical moment in Saw 3D where Jigsaw makes an impossible trap? As skeptics, we were puzzled. But as people who know about masculinity, and the hierarchies it creates, it makes sense. Amanda’s traps were wrong because they killed people who proved that they were tough and masculine enough to deserve life. Jigsaw’s test wasn’t winnable, but it revealed the truth about its victim: that he was a weak man pretending to be strong. The trap preserves the correct hierarchy of masculinity, and hence is fine.
As skeptics, it seemed odd that the same test could be appropriate for depression as murder. But to be depressed is to be weak, and that makes it just as much a violation of masculinity as any of the other shocking cruelties various victims commit. Evil is, to masculinity, just a different kind of weakness, a weakness in the face of temptation. We understand that because we are so used to seeing so many things placed into that frame of masculinity.
Movies like Saw are what happens when people aren’t allowed to talk about masculinity but still believe in it. It’s what happens when children watch how such people act and learn from them. All the basic structure of masculinity is preserved: a hierarchical quality of strength that underlies all skills and is the single important thing in determining someone’s value and place in life. Only the name and the direct association with maleness are hidden away.
Saw is not the first and definitely not the best franchise to have themes of masculinity hidden just below its surface. But I think there’s something fascinating in just how far it goes with it. The series never questions its disturbing ideas, but as a horror film, it focuses on their failures. That’s where the blood and the scares come from, after all. And this turns it into something genuinely unique.
Saw is, unknowingly, a film about why masculinity can’t be our only value. It shows us that the victims we’re told died for their inherent weakness actually died because of too-short time limits or too-fidgety devices. It shows that the skills it takes to input numbers into a safe while walking on glass are unrelated to the skills it takes to be a good person. It shows that suffering doesn’t heal you, and that people who obsess over their ability to suffer will end up destroying each other and themselves. Jigsaw himself dies because another person didn’t learn the lesson his trap was supposed to teach him about forgiveness. He is his own victim.
But it’s also a portrait of how easy it is for the people steeped in it to ignore that fact. We see how Jigsaw can fail, again and again, to help anyone and still blame it on them. We see how people can live through how little his traps teach and still become fascinated enough to follow him. We even see how an audience can watch his whole world crumble in the most excruciatingly gory detail and still come away thinking he’s a genius. Saw is a damning portrait not just of its own failures, but how easy it is to not see them.
I want to be clear; I love Saw. My sister and I did a marathon of every Saw movie and every Step Up movie, and it was a great choice. But I believe a lot of us have forgotten how to notice when someone is talking about masculinity. In fact, we’re actively taught not to. It’s treated as accusing someone of being sexist, and if you do that, people get mad. But Saw is a perfect example of why it’s important to relearn that skill. We very much live in a culture that values masculinity, even if we’re not a culture that says it out loud much. If we can’t recognize that, we can’t question it. And it’s when we can’t question things that movies with bad ideas go from a fun, corny time to something that reinforces ugly instincts.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film.