Saw at 15

Horror movies tend to reflect the time in which they were made, and Saw is no exception. Following the wave of meta ‘90s slasher standouts like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, audiences were craving a scary movie with grit, a sincere film that sought to frighten and exhilarate its viewers, rather than pat them safely on the back for recognizing familiar tropes. A film that didn’t underestimate its spectators.

On October 29, 2004, Saw burst onto the scene like a feminist in a John Updike novel. Unapologetically brutal, crafted by an up-and-comer, and a total game-changer, Saw stood out against the crowd, to say the least. During the height of the nation’s constant paranoia and overall high anxiety, director James Wan and writer/co-star Leigh Whannell brought the iconic character of Jigsaw to the silver screen for the very first time – a villain who seeks not to kill his targets, but rather, to inspire them to live.

When Britain was dangerously close to admitting defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany during World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously told his country, “If you’re going through hell, keep going”. Churchill knew he had nothing to offer his people but “blood, toil, tears and sweat”, and yet, he firmly believed that with enough enthusiasm and a refusal to surrender, the British would prevail in the end – and he was right. One could argue that Saw seeks to elicit the same sort of defiance from its moviegoers.

Told almost entirely in one single location, Saw begins with the simple premise of two men who wake up in a room, chained to the walls, desperate to find a way out. A dead man rests in a pool of blood in the middle of the room, a pistol in one hand and a tape recorder in the other. Together, the two strangers, whose names we learn are Adam Faulkner (Whannell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), soon discover that they are the latest pawns in a deadly game dueled out by the notorious Jigsaw, a serial killer who doesn’t actually kill any of his victims. In a strange sort of roundabout, Jigsaw sets up traps, kidnaps his prey, and gives them a choice: live or die. Each person is given a task which requires some sort of self mutilation in the name of salvation, trading temporary pain in exchange for the rest of their life. 

Flashbacks show history was not so kind to Jigsaw’s previous victims. Paul (Mike Butters) is a ‘perfectly healthy, sane middle class male’ who once attempted to take his own life and failed. Jigsaw challenges this mindset by placing Paul inside of a metal cage, lousy with sharp razor wires, and gives him two hours to escape before the door to his solace slams shut in his face. Mark (Paul Gutrecht) is a guy who gets off on crying wolf, pretending to be ill to garner attention when he is in fact right as rain. Jigsaw repays this façade with a little charade of his own. Trapped inside of a room covered in numbers and glass shards, Mark is injected with a fatal poison, stripped naked, given a candle, and told the antidote he needs to live is inside the safe at the center. The code to the safe is written somewhere on the walls, but there’s one more catch – his flesh is coated with flammable paint, meaning he must move extra carefully so he doesn’t set himself ablaze in the process of trying to save his own life. In Jigsaw’s eyes, both of these men have played with fire, and he’s more than ready to watch them burn.

Of course, technically speaking, Jigsaw is not a serial killer. He’s more of a darkly sinister drill sergeant, hell-bent on instilling the fear and guidance needed to break his subjects down before building them back up into soldiers. His only survivor, Amanda (Shawnee Smith) is a junkie who knocks on death’s door each time she sticks a dirty needle in her arm. After narrowly escaping Jigsaw’s reverse bear trap, she admits to Detective David Tapp (Danny Glover) that the man who threatened to end her existence actually helped her to appreciate her livelihood. “He helped me” she cries at the police station, clearly traumatized, but grateful to be alive. Revealed later to be a cancer patient himself, Jigsaw is sick of people who don’t appreciate their blessings, a dying man’s twisted wish fulfillment fantasy put on full display in the form of little sadistic intricate amusements. So many able-bodied people, so little gratitude afoot. So many games in store.

There was a lot more going on in 2004 than meets the eye. The Statue of Liberty reluctantly re-opens for tourists for the very first time since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, hoping to help bring the nation back to a state of normality, but doing little to ease the tension each citizen felt when attending a packed public event just a few years after watching two of our tallest buildings topple to the ground. Ronald Reagan dies, Florida experiences four hurricanes within a single year, and the first pictures from the torture scenes at Guantanamo Bay are released in the New Yorker and on 60 Minutes. George W. Bush is re-elected, adding another four years to his tenure while simultaneously proving the country to be too shell-shocked to venture outside of its established comfort zones. Facebook launches, skyrocketing social media induced anxiety for patrons around the globe. The U.S. dollar reaches its lowest point in years, Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl prompts debates about censorship in the media, and the nation itself develops a collective agoraphobia as the threat of another attack looms on the horizon like a black cloud over the veil of the world. 

Into this bleak and fearful time, Saw is unabashedly born. The mystical escapist boon Lord of the Rings: Return of the King may have cleaned up at the Oscars in January, providing sanctuary to scared citizens too triggered to watch any form of entertainment that mimics reality, but by the time October rolls around, that dog won’t hunt. Whether knowingly or not, Wan and co. call for a confrontation with their directorial debut, by pitting a smart fox against a slew of fowls too scared to wander outside of their henhouse.

It’s not so much the violence that brings about this intervention – although, to be fair, it was a ferocious film for its time – but actually the idea that the baddie offers his casualties a chance to escape his grasp. Just as Jigsaw instructs Adam, a photographer who makes his bank by blackmailing strangers, to stop watching others live their lives and start living his, so, too, does the man behind the puppet mask extend the offer to each of his victims to struggle their way through his mazes and live to fight another day. In truth, the term torture porn is more of an adopted phrase brought on by later installments and copycat franchises, but the first entry in the Saw saga is more of a testament of an individual’s commitment to get through one obstacle and onto the next.

Whereas Hostel taught viewers to fear the outside world, Saw drags its shy onlookers out of their phobia ridden homes, kicking and screaming, into the daylight. Above all else, even fifteen years later, Saw illustrates the idea to audiences everywhere that when your back is up against the wall, and it looks like there’s no hope in sight, the only way out is through.

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