Stevi Costa lauds Saw III for picking up the pieces after the mess of its predecessor while simultaneously exposing Jigsaw’s troubling white privilege.

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It’s Halloween so it’s time for me to re-view Saw III, which I watched again while hopped up on Theraflu.

That’s a fun way to watch a horror film, let me tell you.

I recall liking Saw III when it came out, and after this viewing, I think I still do. It makes up for a lot of what sucks about Saw II by returning to the original narrative structure of Jigsaw testing someone, but with the added complication that Jigsaw is 100% on his deathbed throughout the film and so he and his apprentice Amanda have also kidnapped a doctor to care for him. The doctor’s name is Lynn and she’s Middle Eastern, which is awesome because she’s essentially the third lead and she’s a woman of color. Lynn gets fitted with an explosives-laced metal collar that’s tied to Jigsaw’s heart rate. She needs to relieve the swelling in his brain without letting him die, because if Jigsaw dies, her collar will explode her head from six different angles. While Amanda freaks out about her master’s health and Lynn tries to save both of their lives, Jigsaw has set up a game to test Angus Macfadyen’s quest for vengeance against the people he blames for the death of his son.

This series of tests for Macfadyen’s Jeff adds further moral complexity to the original narrative, as there’s no threat to Jeff’s life in any of these gruesome scenarios. All of the tests are about whether or not he would help those who he feels had harmed him, either directly or indirectly: a witness who fled the scene of the accident, the judge who handed the defendant a severely reduced sentence, and the defendant himself. Only the first situation, with the witness who freezes to death due to Jeff’s lack of action, presents any harm to Jeff at all. Should he fail to retrieve the key to unlock the freezer, he would surely also die. The moral concerns of these tests are certainly writ large in Saw III, perhaps more so than any other film in the franchise.

And so, by the end, Jeff is supposed to learn forgiveness. He is supposed to save all of these people: the witness, the judge, and the criminal. But the only one he saves is the one who promises him something in return: the judge, who says he’ll help Jeff find legal recourse if they both survive. Jeff lets the witness die through his own inaction (poetic justice, I suppose, for her own inaction during the accident that killed Jeff’s son and its aftermath), and he allows the defendant to be tortured to death rather than shooting himself. (During an attempt to retrieve the key to the trap which in turn pulls the trigger, he ends up shooting the judge by accident. Whoops.) But regardless of whether these people live or die, Jeff still advances to the final stage of the game: Jigsaw’s makeshift hospital room. Once there, he reunites with his estranged wife, doctor Lynn. This, of course, does not please Amanda, as Jigsaw did not inform her about the connection between the two parties they had employed/kidnapped. And so Amanda learns, in some excellent retconning, that Jigsaw was also testing her this whole time, as he noticed her games (i.e. the ones in Saw II) were rigged and unwinnable, that they didn’t allow people to emerge from torture as better people. While Jigsaw explains this to Amanda, who by this point is also dying from a gunshot wound, he also tells Jeff he is sorry to have involved him and his wife in this test for Amanda, and hopes that Jeff has learned about forgiveness during his series of tests. He then asks if Jeff can forgive him for making him go through this, Jigsaw informing Jeff that he is the only person who knows where Jeff’s surviving daughter is. Jeff says yes, he can forgive Jigsaw, but then slices Jigsaw’s throat…thus immediately killing Lynn and cutting off any chance of finding his other child.

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Overall, both Lynn and Jeff’s narrative, and the subsequent testing of Amanda, are pretty satisfying, but there are some things about Saw III that have always bothered me, and they’ve bothered me even more this time. Before the Lynn and Jeff narratives begin, we get two random kills that seemingly have nothing to do with the rest of the film (until we find out they were gratuitous because they were tests designed by Amanda, and they also push the overarching police investigation narrative of the franchise a few inches forward). In one of these kills, the dour female cop from the last film is placed in a cage that will rip out her ribs if she doesn’t dip her hand into a vat of acid to get the key. Even though she gets the key and unlocks it, she is unable to rip out the cage and thus is ripped apart. In the other, a man who is coded as Native American is chained up in a classroom in a perverse version of a Sundance ritual. I’ve never liked that aspect because it is uncomfortable to see a spiritual practice rendered as torture. I also really don’t like when people’s mouths are damaged. I make a living by talking, so you can see how the loss of access to speech would be the most terrifying thing to me. [Sidebar: When the patronus test on Pottermore gave me the option to choose “Speak” or “Silent,” I audibly said, “Oh, god, how is that even a choice?”]

But this time, I noticed a further uncomfortable layer to this kill in the message on Jigsaw’s tape: On the tape, Jigsaw tells this man that he has given up his freedom time and time again, therefore wasting the “numerous advantages and privileges” he’s had in his life. In short, Jigsaw tells a man, who is coded as being from a very vulnerable population that has very few social and economic advantages and privileges, that his frequent stints in jail are his choice and not symptomatic, perhaps, of his distinct lack of social privilege. Framing a brown man’s recidivism in these terms is a fundamentally flawed understanding of both the justice system and how systemic inequality has negatively impacted vulnerable populations. For Jigsaw to frame this man’s problems in terms of ignoring privilege incontestably reveals Jigsaw’s own immense amount of white privilege—and his own blindness to it.

A similar tactic is used with Lynn. The tape given to Lynn demands that she redeem herself for straying from her marriage because it shows the ways in which she “ignores her own advantages in life.” Because we aren’t privy to any other facts about Lynn’s life, viewers are encouraged to accept Jigsaw’s position. We’re encouraged to look at these subjects through Jigsaw’s highly privileged lens as moral arbiter, and while it’s super great to give a role like this to an Iranian actress in 2006, to look back on this narrative now suggests that we have to read Lynn’s ethnicity as another way in which Jigsaw’s perspective on her “advantages” reflects his own advantages over her. Certainly, Lynn has more privilege than our nameless Native American criminal. She’s college-educated. She’s a doctor. But she’s also a Middle Eastern woman in post-9/11 America. And while Jigsaw doesn’t care about that fact, I think we, as viewers in 2016, have to. And if we do choose to accept that Lynn’s ethnicity and her relationship to her “advantages” matter for the narrative, then we must be horrified by the “death pact” Jigsaw makes with her. On the one hand, we might read this as Jigsaw making an “all lives matter” move—by tying his life to Lynn’s, he asserts, in some sense, equality between them. But in saying “all lives matter” (and in equating the value of the life of an old white man with that of a young, college-educated brown woman), this abstraction devalues that very sense of equality. It’s devalued even further when you think of it as this: Lynn only gets to life if Jigsaw lives. If he dies, so does she. That’s absolutely Jigsaw’s privilege speaking, asserting the value of his life over hers, even as he links them together at the level of the heart rate monitor.

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The discussion of “advantages” also comes up in the Jigsaw tape for the driver who killed Jeff’s son. This man happens to be a young black man—a medical student who, after the accident, served a six-month sentence for manslaughter. Here, another white man with a passion for justice has the value of his life tied to that of a person with less social privilege. To be fair, we know less about Jeff than we do about Lynn. We only know he is a white man whose son has died and whose marriage has fallen apart. We don’t know what Jeff’s job is or where he grew up or any additional facts that intersect with his relative privileges as a straight, white, able-bodied man. For all intents and purposes, Jeff is normativity. And his high amount of assumed privilege is something he is being asked to give up (by shooting himself, potentially ending his own life) to save a young black man who wronged him by accident. This scenario allows Jeff the opportunity to use his privilege (as the white dude not currently being tortured) to help someone else out, which differs from the Jigsaw-Lynn dynamic in which there is no potential for negotiation of privilege or use of privilege for good. But Jeff fails on this score, too afraid of losing his life/remaining privilege and unable to learn forgiveness. And so the viewer must watch a young black man have his appendages twisted and turned on themselves so many times that they snap and become unrecognizable as limbs. Not only are the privilege dynamics of this exchange uncomfortable, but so, too, is the element of torture, which reminded me very strongly of stories of slaves being drawn and quartered for disobedience. Like the perverse Sundance ritual, the idea of a black body being tortured seemed “too much.” American history and popular culture is built on the legacy of black bodies in pain, and always at the hands of white privilege. On this score, Saw III is no different.

Do I think the filmmakers are remotely aware of any of this? No, I don’t. Genre cinema has always been better at casting people of color than mainstream cinema, and so I suspect that these roles being given to people of color is purely incidental. But because cinema is about both words and optics, the optics can’t be ignored. They subvert the text and transform it into a critique of its own methods. Where Jigsaw exists to punish those who don’t recognize their privilege, the film itself routinely illustrates the ways in which Jigsaw does not recognize his own privilege. Ten years ago, I don’t think our social consciousness as a country was as tapped in to these things as we are now. And even now, we have a long way to go. But, ultimately, I think a case like this shows us why even dumb genre stuff is important and worthy of critique.

On that note, Happy Halloween! Enjoy your horror movies and your candy and whatever shenanigans you’ll be up to tonight, while keeping in mind that the greatest terror you could possibly encounter isn’t Jigsaw or Amanda or any of their assorted torture devices, but white supremacy.

Free-Floating Thoughts:

  • The opening words of this movie are: “I’ll fucking kill you, you fucking bitch.” These are screamed, in darkness, by Donnie Walberg before the credits even roll. It’s an intentional move to tie this Saw film to its predecessor, but fuck all if that isn’t one of the most aggressive film openings ever.
  • The piggy slaughterhouse part of this movie is just plain gross. If we’re ranking gross deaths in the Saw franchise, drowning in pig guts might be the grossest so far.
  • On the other hand, this Saw movie includes an honest-to-god brain surgery AND I LOVE IT. I love, love, love watching surgeries. It was a family pastime growing up, watching surgeries on Nova and Discovery Channel.
  • But even though I love watching surgeries, I most definitely never want to have brain surgery. #lifegoals

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