Are you ready for Foucault and disability theory mixed in with your horror franchises? Here’s resident Saw-spert Stevi Costa to walk you through another one of Jigsaw’s games in her re-view of Saw VI.
For Stevi’s reviews of the previous Saw films, go to:
As Beetlejuice would say, “It’s Saw-time!”
For the past six years, I have faithfully re-viewed this franchise that had clearly outlived its usefulness past Saw III. In my last review, I summarized my changing opinion of the Saw films in this succinct thesis:
“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.”
Saw VI seems to offer a corrective to my critique by applying Jigsaw’s twisted approach to “social justice” to a privileged white man in a position of actual power. Curiously, Saw VI’s Mr. Easton is the only Jigsaw victim we get an extensive introduction to prior to seeing him in inside Jigsaw’s game. Our opening in this film is about two small-scale insurance salespeople who must race against the clock to extract a pound of flesh from their own bodies in order to make up for their supposed crimes, which I guess according to Jigsaw is equivalent to usury, since he quite literally invokes The Merchant of Venice to make this point. After Detective Hoffman visits the survivor of this “preview” game in the hospital (Scream Queens season 1 winner Tanedra Howard, who cuts off her own arm in a performance that proves why she won Scream Queens), we meet Mr. Easton in his beautiful high-rise office that’s supposed to be in New Jersey but is actually in Toronto, defending his own methodology for determining insurability to his on-staff lawyer, Debbie. Easton makes decisions not on a case-by-case basis, but by a formula he derived to determine eligibility. At a flashback to a cocktail party, we learn that he not only worked with Jill Tuck’s clinic, but also met Jigsaw and, eventually, denied him coverage after his cancer diagnosis. As Jigsaw and Easton converse at the party, Jigsaw observes, “So, you determine who lives and who dies.” Easton denies this critique, and Jigsaw points out that the flaw in Easton’s logic: “When faced with death, the formula doesn’t account for who will live and who should die.”
Jigsaw is determined to make Easton learn a lesson by putting him through a series of tests in which he must determine who lives and who dies without the aid of his algorithm. Clearly, this is a different methodology than Jigsaw has employed before (and retconapalooza in this film will explain why), one that causes a more significant loss of life within the confines of the game than usual as Easton must choose who lives and who dies from among a series of co-workers at his firm until, in a deliciously ironic comeuppance, his fate is ultimately determined by the widow and orphan child of a man he sentenced to death by denying his insurance claim.
I’m teaching a medical humanities class right now that includes Lennard J. Davis’ “Constructing Normalcy,” an article in which the disability scholar argues that the cultural concept of the normal did not form until statistics was popularized as a tool of public health, and this in turn created the concept of disability. My (usually male) students have a hard time with this article because they either a) want to defend statistics as a neutral discipline or b) just can’t let go of their deeply entrenched normativity and so therefore cannot wrap their heads around the fact that we used to think of difference simply as difference and not necessarily as abnormality. (Davis doesn’t even get into what Rosemarie Garland Thompson unpacks in Extraordinary Bodies, where she traces shifting valuations of disability from wonderful or miraculous to accursed or abnormal.) But Davis’ argument seems extremely useful to understand the logics at play in this particular iteration of Saw. Easton, clearly, follows a statistician’s model for determining baseline health and therefore insurability, but this does not account for a variety of intersecting human factors, nor does the allegedly neutral formula account for how its application impacts actual human lives. In a Foucaultian sense, this baseline eligibility formula is a regulatory practice. It is biopower in action. When Jigsaw says, “So, you determine who lives and who dies,” he’s right to note the biopolitical logics at play in Easton’s strict adherence to the neutral and infallible power of mathematically determining human viability at a bureaucratic level.
Maybe if I teach Saw VI alongside that Davis article, my students will be more receptive to the argument.
If I read Saw VI in light of what I’m teaching right now, then my critical impulse is aligned with Jigsaw’s. Sort of. Jigsaw’s counterclaim to Easton’s algorithmic, pure data philosophy is that you cannot truly calculate human life expectancy because people are wild variables and there is no way to predict what they will do if they know they are going to die. (I’m sure John Kramer’s oncologists could not have predicted that a man who used to be an architect for low-income housing projects would get a cancer diagnosis and decide to get his remaining kicks from torturing people into living better lives.) So Jigsaw still isn’t exactly getting it, which is to say this critique is not founded in an informed, socially just perspective that assumes any kind of equity or humanity for anyone. He is not asking Easton to consider how translating real human lives into data might ignore the intersecting factors that would prevent them from having access to better medical care and standards of living in the first place, or that the concept of baseline health necessarily others most of the population at some point in their lives. (It is common in disability parlance to note that disability is the only minority category everyone will eventually join if they live long enough.) All Jigsaw is proposing to Easton is that you can’t turn people into a formula. I agree with that premise, but clearly find problems with the methodology.
The structure of Easton’s game implies that our human empathy is lost when we choose to see people only as abstract data points, and that’s really the core of Easton’s game. Time and again, he must choose to empathize with someone, potentially at great risk to himself, in order to ensure his own survival. He must burn himself repeatedly in order to help Debbie escape the terrifying steam maze that makes up my favorite sequence in the film, and he must plunge screws through each of his hands to save two of his underlings from a firing-squad-merry-go-round. Each choice he makes effectively moves him further from the place of privilege in which he began the film, as he moves from a state of health to a state of injury and potential disability. We’ll never know, however, if he truly learns to see beyond his algorithm, since his fate was never really in his own hands in the first place. Perhaps that ending is the greatest lesson in deconstructing privilege that a Saw film could hope to offer. Perhaps this is the best response I’ll ever get of my critique with later entries into this franchise.
I did mention that this film is heavy with retconning in a desperate attempt to make this plot connect to past plots, but I truly do not care about any of that shit, and that is why I tire of franchises. Eventually, they all become bogged down with the expectation that every aspect of the universe must somehow be tied to everything else. I know there is a subset of fan-viewing and fan-reading that just loves to hunt for these little Easter eggs in plot threads, spending hours trying to understand it and make it all make sense, but I ain’t got time for that. For every single minute I devote to thinking about the Saw franchise, there’s an independent horror film I’m not watching. So, to balance out the time I spent watching and thinking about Saw, I watched The Witch yesterday, and it was exactly the kind of horror film that I think will live on as the Saw films fade from our cultural consciousness. The formulaic nature of the Saw films truly cannot account for who lives and who dies in the horror canon.
— Stevi Costa