'I've never murdered anyone in my life. The decisions are up to them.': ethical guidance and cultural pessimism in the Saw series.

Author:Walliss, John
Position:Critical essay


The Saw franchise of films is the largest-grossing horror franchise of all time. Over the course of seven films (2003-2010), the series has grossed, as of July 2010, $730 million at the box office and more than $30 million on DVD, earning an entry in the Guinness Book of Records (Kit 2008). It has also spawned two video games (Saw, 2009; Saw II: Flesh and Blood, 2010), an amusement ride (Saw: The Ride at Thorpe Park Theme Park, Lincolnshire, UK), several mazes, and a comic book (Saw: Rebirth, 2005). Despite its commercial success, however, the series is often dismissed, along with films such as Hostel (2005) and Captivity (2007), as "torture porn"; a sub-genre of films characterized, it is claimed, by excessive violence for the sake of titillating audiences and a sense of amorality, if not extreme nihilism (Lockwood 2009). For David Edelstein (2006), the New York Times writer who invented the term, the genre--in which he also, perhaps controversially, includes The Passion of the Christ (2004)--is "so viciously nihilistic that the only point seems to be to force you to suspend moral judgments altogether." Such a partisan position over the negative qualities of the franchise has been reinforced by a majority of critics including David Hiltbrand (2005) of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who described Saw II (2005) as "vilely violent ... the Phnom Penh of splatter movies," and Mike Hale (2010) of the New York Times, who bluntly dismissed the franchise as "meretricious garbage, with a claim to moral complexity that serves as a fig leaf while we enjoy the sight of limbs being hacked off and heads exploding." LA Weekly's Nick Pinkerton (2009) intimated that the films should not even be allowed to exist by denouncing Saw VI (2009) as "gray, grisly, solemn, stupid ... the most dismal thing I've ever laid eyes on, the argument against film preservation." But it was, Michael Phillips, writing in the Chicago Tribune, perhaps best exemplifies the majority position of critics when, talking about Saw II, he opined:

[It is] not a film; it's an excuse to show victims bleeding at the mouth, or getting shot in the eye, or plucking out their own eyeballs ... No point in labelling this a horror film. This is a sadism film, and while all good and great horror films know what sadism tastes like, a sadism film settles for nothing of lasting, imaginative horror (Phillips 2007).

Such views were also echoed by film scholars, the most prominent being Christopher Sharrett and Douglas Kellner. Sharrett (2009, 32) complained that the series was characterized by both a "total exclusion of context ... intellectual bankruptcy and retrograde politics," while Kellner (2010, 9) saw the unprecedented and continuing success of the franchise as exhibiting a worrying trend in moviegoers that engendered a "pathological society riven with unmastered aggression and violence." Although both responses clearly perceive the Saw franchise as artistically lacking, they concede that the films nonetheless provide a social commentary on the United States in the twenty-first century. For Sharrett (2009, 32), the series critiques "capitalist society from a decidedly conservative position"; positing the figure of a vigilante--"a perfect emblem of the recent era's rightist ideology"--as the means to religitimate the "fallen world" of contemporary capitalist society. Kellner equally finds social worth in the transgressive use of violence and torture in the Saw films, arguing that the series

puts on display the demented illusions, grotesque hypocrisy, obscene violence, and utter lunacy of the Bush-Cheney era, which finds its true face in the sick and twisted killer-ex-machina Jigsaw ... the lunatic killer Jigsaw can therefore be read as a metaphor for Dick Cheney and his subordinates, a group of fanatical, warped, and vicious advocates of torture and murder, believing that their torturing and murdering is in the cause of good because it is punishing evil (Kellner 2010, 7, 8).

The series producers, however, were much more unequivocal on their position that not only did the series promote a strong moral message but that it did so through innovative uses of the horror genre. Rejecting many accusations found in the critical reception of the franchise, Saw VI director Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw VI Press Conference 2009) claimed that at its core, the series promotes a moral message. While acknowledging that his film, and by extension the series, is not a "critic darling," it nonetheless "has a bigger moral message than a lot of the films that do win [Academy Awards]." In contrast to horror films that are merely "just blood and violence and, you know, you get hot teenagers and get them naked and having some sex and doing some killing," he argued that in the Saw series "there's a moral message underneath them ... so I would just challenge [critics and audiences] to look beneath the surface." Cast member Cary Elwes (Saw Special Edition Audio Commentary 2005) echoed this, describing Saw (Wan 2004) as "a morality tale that was twisted, the most twisted morality tale ever." Going further, series star Tobin Bell claimed in one interview that the series could serve as a pedagogical tool in schools:

Y'know those kids, a teacher could sit them in a classroom and tell them not to move and say 'today we are going to talk about appreciating your blessings' and they'd be like [pretends to fall asleep] 'oh god. That kind of thing. For some reason in Saw there is so much energy and mayhem going on around it and then all of a sudden out of the blue comes this little message that comes through and they remember that. People learn in different ways and the environment in which something is said makes it resonate sometimes, and sometimes it just puts you to sleep (Artisan News Service 2007).

With this in mind, this article will examine the ethical vision presented in the Saw series, focusing in particular on how it represents a trend within post-9/11 popular culture toward increasing cultural pessimism. In doing so, we will draw on our own previous work (Walliss; Aston 2011 & Aston & Walliss 2011) and the work of others such as Mervyn Bendle (2005), John Stroup and Glenn Shuck (2007), and Douglas Kellner (2010), who have argued that recent--post 9/11 cinema--is characterized by a fundamental sense of pessimism. In particular, we will situate our argument within Bendle's (2005, 4) claim that popular culture, echoing wider shifts within American culture, has witnessed a movement from what he terms a Promethean view of human nature that sees human beings as able to be improved, to a more pessimistic, Augustinian view emphasizing "human sinfulness and weakness ... a dystopian vision ... anti-humanism ... [and] conservatism." We will locate the Saw films within this cultural trajectory, in particular focusing on the "games" and the use of torture and how these rituals disturb a clear moral and ethical vision as the franchise moves unsteadily between conservative and liberal ideologies. To put it another way, human beings, the films show, are riddled with vices and invariably cannot, even when put in a life-or-death situation, develop the self-awareness to overcome them. Indeed, humans have become so debased and disconnected from life that those liberal, progressive attempts to help them and legal attempts to sanction them are doomed to failure. In the end, the only way in which they can be "saved," and by extent the social order be protected from them and thus restored, is through vigilantism and a never-ending cycle of torture.

Reconnecting with Your "True" Self: Ethics in Saw

Within the Saw films, individuals, either alone or in combination with others, are placed in ingenious and lethal traps. These traps, referred to as "games" by their creator, John Kramer (aka Jigsaw), are designed to encourage the re-emergence of what Kramer believes is the survival instinct within his "test subjects," with each test reflecting their particular vices or perceived failings. At the beginning of each game, the test subjects find a Dictaphone nearby with a recorded message from Kramer--his voice slowed and distorted to mask his identity--in which they are cryptically told why they are where they are through a series of instructions that they have to follow in order to "win" their game. Alternatively, Kramer may deliver this information via a videotaped message, the message given via a sinister puppet known in the franchise as "Billy." For example, in Saw IV, a multiple rapist (Ivan Landsness), who has been freed through the actions of his lawyer, is placed in a game that will rip the limbs from his body unless he pushes two buttons, which in turn will drive two knives into his eyes. Via a Dictaphone message, Jigsaw tells him:

Hello Ivan. As a voyeur you've kept photos of those you have victimized. Can you see the pain that you have brought them? You have torn apart their lives. You have used your body as an instrument of abuse. Now I give you the chance to decide what is more important: your eyes that have led you blindly astray, or your body which has caused those around you endless suffering. You have been handed the tools which can save your life. Decide quickly though. In 60 seconds the choice will be made for you. In this example, the rapist has to willingly blind himself in order to escape, thus performing a symbolic castration that directly aligns the trap to his past actions. In Saw III (2006), a man (Jeff) who has become obsessed with punishing the drunk driver (Tim) who killed his son is put through a series of games designed to see if he can overcome his sense of vengeance by forgiving and saving from death a witness who did not come forward to the police and the judge who, Jeff believes, did not sentence Tim to a long enough prison term. These series of games eventually culminate in one wherein Jeff can either help free Tim or watch him be slowly torn to pieces in a machine to...

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