Mention the movie Saw to most people, and you’ll get a visceral reaction. A shudder. A groan. Something to indicate that they know Saw for one main reason: it’s gross. Saw has become the byword for extreme over-the-top mainstream horror. Guts and gore, grime and green filtered photography, a visual representation of sickness. Critics at the time referred to Saw as “torture porn,” a sub-genre designed to inflict suffering on its characters and the audience. Saw became known as the closest thing to a snuff film one could see in the neighborhood multiplex.
That’s not the reputation Saw deserves. While the violence is integral to the plot, it’s far from the whole story.
Adam (Leigh Whannell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) wake up in a filthy bathroom, ankles chained to thick pipes. Between them lies a body holding a gun in one hand, a micro-cassette player in the other. Clues hide in plain sight. Who has entrapped them, why they were chosen, and how they will escape make up the crux of the plot. Adam and Dr. Gordon must talk to each other, building a terse and flimsy relationship. As each character goes through flashbacks, other scenes reveal what is happening outside of their grimy white-tiled prison.
Saw isn’t a standard “kill someone every eight minutes” horror film. It is dialogue-heavy, focusing more on conversation than carnage. The screenplay by Whannell makes you care about the characters. You know them until you don’t. Wrinkles are constantly introduced to make you doubt what you’ve previously believed. There are no plot twists in Saw. There are story corkscrews that shock and confound the first-time viewer. Saw is a mystery, a who-what-where-and-why-dunnit presented with grim intensity. It’s a gruesome police procedural presented with style and restraint.
That word, “restraint,” isn’t often used in Saw discussions. Compared to the sequels, Saw has little blood. Violence isn’t exactly implied, mind you, but what shows on screen could be far worse. There’s a scientific term for that: “perceptual filling-in.” That’s when your brain adds imagery to memories so you think you’ve seen things that were never shown. Think of that famous scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre where Leatherface puts the girl on the meat hook. It is never explicitly depicted on screen, but people consistently point to that scene as one of the most disgusting ever filmed. Guess what? Your brain made that little picture show for you.
You might think you see a guy’s head get smashed by a toilet tank lid in Saw, but it’s not on the screen.
In the 1980s, on-screen killers were just that: killers. Their motivations were lacking, banal. Jason Voorhees hated those who had pre-marital sex. Michael Myers wanted to murder members of his family, particularly his sister. Freddy Kreuger had a murderous grudge against all those meddling Springfield kids. Into the 1990s, Ghostface became the generic term for the killer in the Scream movies, although Ghostface’s true identity changed from film to film. Look: the same thing happened in Scooby-Doo episodes, and it worked.
And then, there was Jigsaw.
Jigsaw was a bizarre amalgamation of John Doe from David Fincher’s Se7en and a life coach. His dangerous traps could be escaped at a price. Like an inspirational speaker, Jigsaw wanted people to understand the preciousness, the joy of life. In his mind, that could only be achieved by putting people in situations where they could die. His motivation was morally ambiguous, an EST workshop with razor wire. It can be argued that Jigsaw never killed anyone with those traps. He simply set before them a choice: live or die. Some people would pay good money for an experience like that. Something to shock their humanity back into them.
Maybe that’s why Jigsaw became a household name. Look at where America was at the time. In June of 2003, a guy killed two people with a sword at a California grocery store. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were well underway. Another space shuttle was destroyed, this time upon re-entry over Texas. Nothing seemed rational anymore. Jigsaw’s passive-aggressive slaughter machines made as much sense as Chicago winning Best Picture at the 2003 Academy Awards.
Those aspects aren’t the sum of why Saw works. Most violent movies are more than a little dumb. Saw is consistently clever. It demands your attention. You can’t leave the room for 20 minutes, come back, and hope to make sense of what you’re seeing. Saw is tight, sleek, and close to seamless. Not to mention, Saw has one of the greatest jaw-dropping twist endings of all time. Watching all the elements come together in the final act is mind-boggling and memorable.
Even though it spawned a franchise that has lasted for almost two decades, with varying degrees of success, Saw presented horror in one of its finest forms. Saw is smart, bloody, and thought-provoking, a morality play where ambiguity reigns supreme.
It’s not about the traps. It’s not even about Jigsaw. Not really. Saw shows us that we, as people, are in a race against time to reclaim ourselves, to be human and empathetic. Live or die. It’s our choice.