Plot A US city, present day. Adam, a young man, wakes chained to a wall in a derelict washroom, not knowing how he got there. Lawrence Gordon, a surgeon, is manacled opposite. Between them is a bloody body, a gun, and a Dictaphone. Each man has a tape in his pocket. Adam is told he is in this situation because of his apathy, while Lawrence is told he must kill Adam by six o’clock otherwise his wife and daughter will die. The men find two saws that prove useless against their manacles. They also find a mobile phone that only receives calls. Lawrence believes that they are prisoners of Jigsaw, a killer who aims to teach his victims the value of their lives through the use of lethal traps that the victims must escape. Previously, Lawrence was suspected by Detective Tapp of being this killer. Tapp had previously cornered Jigsaw at a mannequin factory but lost him, during which Tapp’s partner, Sing, was killed. It transpires that Adam was paid to photograph Lawrence’s adultery by Tapp, who despite being discharged from the police remains convinced that Lawrence is guilty. While monitoring Lawrence’s house, Tapp sees a disturbance and breaks inside, where he finds Lawrence’s family fighting their captor, Zep, an orderly at Lawrence’s hospital. Tapp saves the pair and chases Zep to a sewage works, where Tapp is killed. Lawrence, who hears the fight over the phone, goes berserk, sawing off his foot, before shooting Adam. Zep enters and a wounded Adam batters him to death. Lawrence crawls out of the cell, telling Adam that he will find help. Adam plays a Dictaphone found on Zep’s body and realizes that the orderly was not Jigsaw, who has been lying on the bathroom floor this whole time. To Adam’s horror, Jigsaw rises leaving the bathroom and locking Adam inside (adapted from Osmond 62).
Film note Despite its $1.2m budget Saw became an unexpected financial success, spawning a financially success horror franchise with a total worldwide box-office of $1.02bn, and initiating a trend of torture films, including Hostel (Roth, 2005) and Wolf Creek (Mclean, 2005). The original Saw called on its historical context, simultaneously appealing to and repulsing Americans through its depiction of torture in a way that evoked imagery of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan prevalent in US media at the time of its release. The film’s politics remain unclear but despite the unflinching and at times sympathetic depiction of Jigsaw’s authoritarian punishment, Saw ultimately condemns such strategies of torture, thus implicitly asserting a left-wing political stance.
Origins of a billion dollar franchise The filmmaking and industrial decisions made during Saw‘s production track a contingent route to the establishment of a lucrative franchise. In 2003, after little success marketing their feature-length script in Australia, James Wan and Leigh Whannel sent a short film, also called Saw, to producers in Los Angeles to seek funding (Hacking Away at ‘Saw’). Upon viewing the short, Evolution Entertainment offered the pair a deal with complete creative control, an eighteen-month production schedule, and a limited $1.2m budget (Tobias). After the film’s completion, and days before its exhibition at the Sundance Film Festival, Saw was picked up by Lionsgate Films (Lionsgate), distributors of low-budget horror films Cabin Fever (2002) and Cube 2: Hypercube (Sekula, 2002), both of which featured a similar trapped premise to Saw. Lionsgate was drawn to Saw‘s “unique” narrative, perceiving the film and its director as valuable assets that would allow them to grow their dominance of the horror/thriller genre (Mitchell).
Wan believes that if the film had been produced by “a bigger studio with studio financing behind it” Saw “would have a very different feel and look” (Tobias). Indeed, the film’s limited budget and rushed shooting schedule moulded its form, with production stills being utilised to patch scenes together, and this results in a grunge aesthetic that resembled surveillance footage (Tobias). The film’s gritty imagery produced a sense of authenticity not found in slick high budget productions. Indeed, the shots resemble iconic photographs from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (an idea that will be expanded later), thereby resonating with the audience’s awareness of the torture of Iraqi POWs by US troops. Critics believed that Saw‘s aesthetic and its “original and disturbing situations” helped “revitalise” “what had become a relatively stale horror scene” (THR STAFF). And, unusually for a horror film, Saw received an positive reception at the Sundance Film Festival, drawing large audiences during its three midnight screenings (Fernandez). Further positive reactions from critics and viewers at test screenings led Lionsgate’s marketing co-president, Tim Palen, to release the film theatrically on Halloween weekend rather than opt for their intended straight-to-DVD distribution strategy (Fernandez). This decision proved highly lucrative for Lionsgate, with Saw earning a domestic box-office gross of $18.2m during its opening weekend, with praise for the “experimental style” that had resulted from production constraints (Tobias).
Following the success of Saw’s pre-release, Evolution Entertainment established Twisted Pictures, a subsidiary that specialised in horror and which collaborated with Lionsgate on a total of nine Saw films. While Whannel revised Saw II’s script and wrote the franchise’s third entry, Wan left the project after the original Saw to direct other successful horror films, including Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013). As the franchise progressed, its entries became more sensationalist, emphasising Jigsaw’s inventive torture methods as the franchise’s lynchpin and minimising the first film’s political allusions. This depoliticisation may have attracted investment in the franchise, as in the late 2000s, Saw diversified into a multimedia title with the Japanese video game developer Konami releasing Saw (2009); meanwhile, multiple licensed amusement rides opened, such as ‘Saw: The Ride’ in Thorpe Park. By omitting the historical references so central to the first film, the Saw franchise developed a timeless mainstream appeal, as even in 2015, Jigsaw remains a global pop-culture figure.
Post-9/11 Torture Porn Despite being dismissed by critics as “not quite worth the ordeal it puts us through” (Ebert), Saw offers the audience an opportunity “to confront, understand and possibly work through the traumatic nature of a post-9/11” US (Aston and Walliss 4). The film’s covert referencing of its historical context and its paradoxical affects as a horror film, which simultaneously excites and repulses spectators, reflects the US’s relationship with torture. An analysis of Saw suggests that during the mid-2000s, this relationship was contradictory, with depictions of torture both unsettling US citizens while perhaps also offering right-wing viewers the vicarious pleasure of payback and revenge.
Saw initiated a sub-genre of ultra-violent films dubbed “torture porn” by David Eldenstein. These films became a major cinematic trend in the mid-2000s, exemplified by Hostel and Wolf Creek. The sub-genre is defined by its explicit gore and depictions of unrestrained torture on, debatably, innocent victims, resulting in much critical debate on the cause of their popularity. Directors of such films, including Rob Zombie and Zev Berman, “cite images of the War on Terror as influencing” their work, explicitly connecting the subgenre with its historical context (Jones 5). These ideological connections, including in Saw, are made via the way the films place their characters’ bodies under threat. Drawing on the scholarship of Mary Douglass, in which the body functions “as a metaphor for the social body”, Ben McCann states that Jigsaw’s invasive torture represents a national “fear of the Other and the fear of “terrorist invasion post-9/11” (Aston and Walliss 5-6). This analogy between terrorism and the body is demonstrated by the rhetoric which remembers 9/11 as “a hole” that “was torn in the heart of America.” (The Times Editorial Board).
Although the film’s grimy aesthetic resulted from its budgetary limits, its dishevelled set design and mise-en-scene resembles the stained Abu Ghraib prison cells in which US soldiers brutally tortured and humiliated Iraqi detainees. CBS broadcast photographs from Abu Ghraib only six months prior to Saw’s release, informing the US public of the brutality of interrogation methods used in Iraq . The sadism of these acts and the detainee’s alleged innocence provoked a moral questioning within US society, with many asking whether torture was justifiable. This unsettlement potentially explains Saw’s stylised form, demonstrated by 360-degree pans, cool toned lighting, and prominent sound effects. These techniques draw attention to themselves, alluding to the film’s fictionality, hence distancing the viewer from experiencing the moral uncertainty produced by real-world acts of torture. While Saw references Abu Ghraib to provoke discomfort and fear within the viewer, its stylised form distances the spectator from such representations.
The troubling affects associated with torture raise the question of why Saw was so popular with post-9/11 audiences? Edelstein proposes that to take pleasure from “torture porn’s” nihilistic portrayals of suffering, the viewer must “suspend” their “moral judgements altogether”. Alternatively, Steve Jones suggests that torture offers catharsis by acting as a vicarious outlet for the retribution right-wing US citizens desired post-9/11. Jigsaw’s biblical “eye for an eye” ideology, in which those he views as reprehensible are targeted, might appeal to those who felt vengeful after 9/11. The notion of “torture porn” providing viewers with pleasure is alluded to in its title, with the word ‘porn’ signalling a process of intense gratification. These cues, along with the abundance of reality-horror and “war porn” media produced during the mid-2000s, document US audiences’ desire for redemptive violence (Jones 6). Ultimately, Saw’s popularity conveys the US’s contradictory relationship with torture in the mid-2000s, with its representations prompted by and responding to a national moral uncertainty.
Saw‘s narrative mimicry of video games further complicates how the film might be understood ideologically as relating to the “war on terror”. In the mid-2000s, US legislation sought to limit video game brutality, with Leland Yee suggesting a player’s ability to enact violence would become “part of their [behavioural] repertoire” (qtd. in Fritz). Arguably, due to this backlash against violent gaming, Saw attracted a large young male demographic seeking to experience vicarious violence in other media forms. Beyond its bloodshed, Evangalos Tziallas notes that the film has further affinities as a feature of its narrative, with Jigsaw’s desire to “‘play games’ with his victims” a common mechanism within video games (54). However, in Saw, the spectator aligns with Jigsaw’s “players”, concurrently undergoing Jigsaw’s traps and receiving clues to his identity, but unlike in a computer game these are powerless figures. Through this form of identification and the withholding of narrative information (such as Jigsaw’s identity), Saw‘s spectators are placed in a similar position to the US’s lack of control in the face of terrorism. The Bush administration characterised “‘the war on terror” as a war against the ‘unknown'” (Frank 485) and the film materialises this fear through Jigsaw’s victims being seemingly randomly chosen civilians whose only knowledge is provided by their captor’s demands. Thus, despite its affinities with video games, Saw inverts the agency found within the medium to starkly depict the US’s powerlessness in the face of terrorism. Saw‘s diegesis is grounded in its “war on terror” historical context, exploiting the US’s national instability by emphasising a fear of the unknown and moral uncertainty while also appealing to right-wing viewers who desire vicarious revenge for 9/11.
Discipline and control Saw distinguishes itself from other “torture porn” films because Jigsaw aims to correct rather than punish his victims. This narrative motivation produces a power dynamic that mimics the criminal justice system. Evangelos Tziallas envisions Jigsaw as a “figural representative of the Bush Administration”, with his actions offering perceived deviants who embrace antisocial behaviour, such as addicts, criminals, and adulterers, “the opportunity to correct themselves.” (49) Similarly, Jigsaw demonstrates an individualist ideology associated with the political right-wing. For instance, Jigsaw’s trap for Lawrence and Adam operates on a “survival of the fittest” dogma in which if Lawrence does not kill Adam he will die himself. The protagonists’ trap also requires them to display individualist behaviours in their choice of whether to survive by sawing off their own feet, as well as self-sufficiency, with the pair decoding voice recordings to find props that will help them. This individualism is further conveyed through the film’s cinematography, with the bathroom scenes being dominated by one-shots and reverse shots, visually instigating an opposition between Adam and Lawrence. Through these aspects of Saw‘s form, Jigsaw narratively and visually offers a right-wing vision of society and a related approach to justice.
However, Saw undermines Jigsaw’s right-wing stance, implying that it is inherently flawed; thus, the film adopts a left-liberal and critical position. Notably, none of Jigsaw’s games successfully correct the corrupted (with the possible exception of Amanda, who the franchise later displays as even more twisted than Jigsaw). Through Jigsaw’s ineffective model of correction, the film discredits a “right-wing perspective” that promotes “the necessity of violence undertaken outside the visible sphere of law and order”, instead proposing that allowing an individual to lawlessly punish others is sadistic and misguided (Aston and Walliss 5). Additionally, the film proposes that its characters’, and hence the US’s, future requires collective action and cooperation. For example, during the film’s conclusion, Lawrence shoots Adam in the shoulder, refusing to kill him and thus thwarts Jigsaw’s “survival of the fittest” dogma. Within this scene, a close-up two-shot depicts Adam and Lawrence embracing, accompanied by a melodic non-diegetic score that deeply contrasts the rest of the film’s harsh soundscape of Foley screams and discordant strings. Also, Jigsaw’s individualist beliefs are framed as a consequence of his treatment by society. After being dehumanised by Lawrence during treatment for terminal brain cancer, Jigsaw regards him as possessing an ungrateful and arrogant attitude towards life, which he is intent on rehabilitating. By narratively framing Jigsaw’s sadistic actions as a product of society’s selfishness, Wan and Whannel critique Saw’s right-wing historical context further, suggesting that a paranoid, vengeful society only breeds further violence and contempt. Through these techniques, Saw advocates for collective values, opposing a right-wing view of the world as governed by individualism and violent moral outrage.
Through Jigsaw’s call for a more disciplined and authoritarian society, he symbolises US political power in the early 2000s. Accordingly, Saw‘s bathroom set acts as a microcosm for the US during the “war on terror”. Surveillance is intrinsic to Jigsaw’s and the Bush administration’s attempts to control society, with US civilians and the film’s protagonists being scrutinised. Saw‘s narrative and visual use of surveillance footage render Jigsaw’s view and control over the bathroom is panoptical, with the technology normalising a belief that someone may be watching any misdeed at any point. This aims to install discipline within the characters, stripping them of their ability to act freely. However, the film doubles down on this, showing Jigsaw to also have been physically present in the bathroom throughout the story’s duration and that Tapp has been monitoring Lawrence’s apartment. As such, the film moves from showing surveillance as a form of passive control to an all-encompassing Orwellian intrusion, through which Wan and Whannel critique the USA PATRIOT Act. This act was introduced post-9/11 and attempted to prevent terrorism by permitting government organisations to warrantlessly search houses and record civilians’ call logs and internet search history. While Bush proposed that the act was “vital to the war on terror”, the film reflects left-wing critiques of the act, portraying such control as a villainous attempt to unduly restrict the rights of US citizens, and ultimately ineffective.
An analysis informed by Michel Foucault’s notions of punishment provides further evidence of how Saw promotes a left-wing view of justice and punishment. Foucault traces the historical “disappearance of the tortured, dismembered, amputated body” from the public sphere, with punishment occurring privately in contemporary society (8). However, Saw and the torture porn subgenre reverse this, exposing their audiences to the spectacle of torture. While Jigsaw intends for his executions to deter future criminals, aligning with the act of punishment’s historical purposes, the film does not share his motivation. Instead, through Saw‘s exhibition of torture, it promotes the viewer to feel “pity” for the victim and regard “the executioner” (Jigsaw) with “shame”, mimicking the documented perspective of onlookers at non-fictive public executions (Foucault 9). Within this perspective, the audience denounces Jigsaw and his right-wing notions of vengeful rehabilitation.
The war on terror informs Saw‘s aesthetic and narrative to reveal US society’s complex relationship with torture that is simultaneously marked by moral uncertainty and vicarious pleasure. Ultimately, Saw is a “twisted morality tale”, asking its mid-2000s audience: how much blood would you shed to stay alive? The film’s refusal to legitimise right-wing notions of vengeful punishment implicitly renders the film critical and perhaps left-wing, distinguishing Saw from the wider torture porn subgenre. Condemning Jigsaw’s authoritarian actions and propagating collectivism through its protagonists, the film warns its post 9/11 audience of the dangers of social apathy, the very attitude that produced Jigsaw.
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Written by Eden Gilby (2015); edited by Elspeth Taylor (2022), Queen Mary, University of London
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