It’s Sawloween, which means 10YA’s resident Saw-spert Stevi Costa is back to discuss the horror series’ narrative turn toward social relevance, however surface-level or mishandled, with the real estate/equity challenge escape room entry Saw V.
For Stevi’s reviews of the previous Saw films, go to:
Happy Sawloween, everyone!
As I continue to rewatch this gory, grey-toned, industrial torture franchise every year for Halloween, I become increasingly more critical of the motivations of its central figure, Jigsaw. As I’ve written in my reviews of Saw III and Saw IV, I simply disagree with Jigsaw’s right to mete out justice in the name of social good while blatantly ignoring the actual dynamics of privilege that impact the racial, economic, and gendered positions of his victims. These are films that hinge on a wealthy white man’s concept of justice and moral goodness, and the bodies of women, people of color, and the impoverished are often literally put through some kind of ringer in order to provide the opportunity for them to turn their lives around through encounters with trauma and suffering. As if it were that easy. As if these figures didn’t experience traumas both large and small every single day as a function of the larger systems of oppression that, in fact, prevent them from turning trauma and suffering into opportunity. Trauma begets more trauma begets suffering begets death.
I suppose I am not meant to agree with Jigsaw’s methods. I am not intended to watch these films and say, “Wow. That guy sure has some great ideas.” But, as is the case with many horror franchises, the villain becomes the thing viewers root for. In signing up to watch torture and murder perpetuated by the same person over and over again, we perhaps implicitly condone such a point of view. We desire to see more, and so we desire for the monster to continue to escape to kill again. I ended my last review by asking if our interest in Jigsaw’s perverse methodology was, in fact, an endorsement of it. I reserve the right to change my mind watching future films, but after this viewing, I think it is. At least in part. But it’s also critical thereof. At least in part. Because we, as viewers, know we are not supposed to follow this example. And because we know that those who follow Jigsaw’s example always corrupt it. Always.
As a case in point, Saw V begins with a Nazi trapped in his own version of Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. The Jigsaw tape suggests that this angry young white man’s problem is not, however, that he is a literal fucking Nazi, but that he got out of jail too early and didn’t serve his full sentence for the murder of his girlfriend. I would suggest that his inclinations toward violence against women are part and parcel of his Nazism, but Jigsaw doesn’t seem to care about that. His political ideology is never mentioned in dialogue. We only know this as viewers because the camera keeps his various SS tattoos in view as it pans over his naked torso and we think, “Oh, this man is a white supremacist.” Of course, it is later revealed in the film that this Nazi killed Detective Mark Hoffman’s sister, and that Hoffman has been acting as Jigsaw’s new apprentice. Ergo, this particular kill is not actually one of Jigsaw’s, but one of Hoffman’s, and thus it doesn’t fully fit the bill of how Jigsaw would choose to mete out justice. But I would argue that even if this were actually Jigsaw — because we are meant to think that it’s Jigsaw — it would fit in because Jigsaw would in fact not care that this man is a Nazi. He might hone in on the domestic violence a little more than Hoffman does, which makes Hoffman a corruption of the methodology already because he’s made it too personal.
But I’m going to go ahead and say the core of that problem is, in fact, fucking Nazism. Neither Jigsaw nor Hoffman seem to find that ideology to be an ethical failure, and that’s where I’m out. That is worse than failing to care for your aging mother because you were addicted to drugs or accidentally killing someone because you ran a red light when you were drunk or whatever other banal small-scale human tragedy for which Jigsaw might want to punish someone. We should want to root for a person who kills a Nazi, though, regardless of their own motivations (see Nazi-punching colonizer thief Indiana Jones), and so the franchise spins on in Jigsaw’s favor because Nazis are bad, and killing them is good, so if Jigsaw kills one Nazi, it almost makes up for all of the other bullshit ways he tortures the disenfranchised, right? That’s Saw math, I think.
Anyway. This edition of Saw packs in a lot of ret-con nonsense plotting, so I’ll just summarize it here and get back to what I am interested in discussing. Hoffman is in a long-con plot to continue his work as Jigsaw’s apprentice and frame Detective Peter Strahm for Jigsaw’s crimes. In the pursuit of this plot, we are treated to Scott Patterson desperately trying to shed his Luke Danes persona by doing some slipshod detective work. I did enjoy his emergency tracheotomy scene, however, because I love a good emergency trach. (And perhaps I love them because my personal body horror is any injury to the mouth or throat and thus I find e-trachs both terrifying and fascinating.) Hoffman wins in the end, of course, because the killer needs to escape to continue giving us this questionable franchise.
Running in parallel to the Hoffman plot, there’s the Jigsaw plot du jour, which involves a group of five strangers who all have some sort of connection to a building fire. I assume these characters have names, but I’ll be damned if the film lets me know what they are, so I’ll refer to them only by the descriptions they provide each other in the first scene. There’s the Arsonist, the Investigative Journalist, the Fire Inspector, the City Planner, and the Insurance Adjustor. Each of them had a hand in the circumstances surrounding this building fire that killed and/or displaced several low-income families, and we learn more and more about that as the film pushes forward and each member of this sad little cabal dies off, leaving only experienced final girl and actual vampire Julie Benz alive at the end. (Assuming the Arsonist bleeds to death on the floor, that is.)
Jigsaw challenges these folks from the start of their series of tests to work together because they are “all connected” and are “all born with certain advantages.” It’s an equity challenge. Jigsaw encourages them to work against their instincts for self-preservation. Essentially, he asks them to question their alleged privileges, see the humanity in one another, and help each other survive. Once again, Jigsaw invokes privilege as an evil while failing to recognize his own. But, then again, so do these players, so perhaps Jigsaw is only as good as his methods allow. Of course, the loudest white man in the group — the Investigative Journalist — is the first to ruin everything, leading to the death of one of the women (the Fire Inspector) as he attempts to turn everyone against the Arsonist. Fortunately, the remaining players quickly sacrifice the Investigative Journalist in the next round, set in a room with three tunnel-like shelters to protect players from a series of nail bombs that will explode when the timer goes off. They realize afterward that there was plenty of room in each hiding space for more than one person. Obviously, they’re all better off without that jackhole, though, so they move on to the next room where the Arsonist, the City Planner, and the Insurance Adjustor must decide who among them should suffer a potentially deadly electric shock (in a bathtub full of water) to open the next door. Rather than working together, as Jigsaw implored them to do, the Insurance Adjustor knocks out the City Planner and electrocutes her unconscious body to unlock the doors to the next room, where the final two must sacrifice 10 pints of blood by pressing their arms against tiny little saws and mechanized blades before they can escape. It’s at this point they realize, finally, that they were all meant to survive: to give merely a little bit of their bodies at each stage of the game in order to pay their penance for participating in some vaguely defined real estate scandal that impacted low income families of color. It’s the worst escape room you’ve ever tried to play. (Sidebar: I definitely saw a sign for a Saw-themed escape room in Prague and I was like, “No, thank you. That’s how you end up in Hostel.”)
The racial and gender politics of this group of people matter if Jigsaw is presenting it as an equity challenge. A white, well-educated male journalist is not the same as a white, female working class fire inspector, who is not the same as an impoverished white male arsonist, who is not the same as an educated black, female city planner, who is not the same as an educated white, female insurance adjustor. No one begins this game on an equal playing field, nor does the game do anything to equal that playing field. Here I suppose Jigsaw’s point might have been realized if only the loudest white man in the room hadn’t asserted his own importance. If only that particular white man had ceded his privilege and shut the fuck up for a minute, he might have noticed the women in the room trying to work out how they might be connected to one another. The only person of color in the game is killed very violently by two white players, whereas other white players die by happenstance or their own failure, rather than outright assault. I really wished Julie Benz had chosen to take out the other white man at that moment, rather than seeing a smart black woman as her competition. So maybe this film really is making a point about white feminism? Or maybe no one thought that violently murdering the only person of color in this particular Saw film would be a problem. It’s most likely that second thing.
I remember liking this turn in the Saw franchise, where suddenly the films begin to take on some kind of social relevance as they comment on the real estate collapse or the healthcare crisis, but they do so in a way that barely scratches the surface of real engagement. Saw is by no means the height of social horror. It is by no means smart. It doesn’t even seem fair to social horror to even attempt to compare Saw to it, as the writing quality of the Saw series really, I think, is about a complete lack of thought. But I believe all horror films speak to some mysterious fears in our nature, and if Saw V speaks to anything at all, it’s that our incapability to recognize our own social privilege is the thing that turns us into monsters like Jigsaw, his apprentices, and the people trapped in his real estate nightmare escape room.