Making Sense of ‘Saw’’s Jumbled Jigsaw Mythology
'Saw' turns ten this year, and while the franchise’s “torture porn” legacy is clear, its serialized story – spanning seven squirm-inducing films – remains anything but. Few cinematic series have ever told a continuous tale with less grace, intelligibility and basic common sense than 'Saw' (as a quick, headache-inducing peek at its Wikipedia page confirms). Nonetheless, there is some sort of method to the maddening mythology surrounding puzzle-loving fiend Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), as we discovered upon revisiting James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s genre efforts. Concerned with cancer, revenge, and all sorts of righteous moralizing, the killer’s various machinations are a righteous mess that, on the original’s tenth anniversary, we finally try to clean up, via this rundown of what Jigsaw’s really up to – and why, and how – throughout his insanely elaborate deadly-trap saga.
Through both flashbacks and the ordeal of Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes), who awakens to find himself chained up in a bathroom and given the choice to saw his leg off and kill another prisoner (Leigh Whannell) or have his family slaughtered, 'Saw' immediately establishes Jigsaw as a mysterious figure who adores putting people in horrific traps. His aim is to make them cherish their lives by risking gruesome injury and loss in order to survive – and, by extension, to correct behavior that Jigsaw has deemed wrong. He’s a moralistic killer, and one whose nickname comes from the fact that he takes a jigsaw-shaped piece of flesh from those who fail his tests.
As Dr. Gordon explains while recounting Jigsaw’s history, “Technically speaking, he’s not really a murderer,” because he never actually kills; instead, his victims only die because they didn’t fulfill their tests. This, of course, makes no rational sense. Nor does the fact that Jigsaw uses spooky animatronic dolls to deliver his prerecorded messages. Or that he terrorizes (and threatens to kill) Gordon’s wife and young daughter – by proxy – to make Gordon change his ways. Or that he murders detective Sing (Ken Leung) in order to get away, thus, hypocritically, putting himself above the life of an honest, decent, innocent man.
Also, in the last scene, we learn that he’s really good at playing dead.
'Saw II' (2005)
Jigsaw doesn’t give up much new personal info in 'Saw II.' Yet, while sitting across a table from Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg), he does reiterate, in greater detail, his belief system, which he developed after (a) he learned that he was dying of cancer and (b) a failed suicide attempt. Those twin developments made Jigsaw want to challenge people’s “survival instincts,” though it also made him commit the remainder of his life to using games to teach “sleepwalking” people to appreciate life. That those two things – people’s “survival instincts” and “appreciation of life” – aren’t the same thing doesn’t bother Jigsaw, because his main goal is to “test the fabric of human nature.”
I’m not sure what that means either.
Nonetheless, with his latest game involving a group of convicts – including the original 'Saw'’s Amanda (Shawnee Smith), and Matthews’ son Daniel (Erik Knudson); who are tasked with escaping an apartment building full of lethal gizmos and poison gas -- Jigsaw does reveal a strange needle fetish, via one syringe-related trap after another. The fact that Jigsaw’s latest victims are simultaneously cretins in need of a new path in life, as well as wronged victims who deserve revenge, shows that the villain is a mastermind at researching his prey. Luckily, Jigsaw doesn’t have to execute his intricate plan alone, as revealed by the climax’s bombshell that he now has a disciple who worships him for helping her kick drugs: Amanda!
'Saw III' (2006)
Jigsaw is a preachy Jim Jones (albeit with only one apparent follower) when 'Saw III' begins. He’s also increasingly incapable of getting out of bed thanks to his cancer. As a result, he convinces Amanda to do his bidding. In this case, that involves forcing nurse Lynn (Bahar Soomekh) to care for him, as well as putting husband and father Jeff (Angus Macfadyen), who’s still grieving over the death of his son, in the position of either saving or condemning individuals related to his son’s hit-and-run demise. No more info is provided about Jigsaw’s background save for some fleeting deathbed visions of his beloved wife. But 'Saw III' does plumb the dynamic between Jigsaw and Amanda, whose belief in Jigsaw’s master plan begins to fade the further she becomes his partner-in-crime.
In flashbacks, we see that Amanda was Jigsaw’s sidekick from the beginning of the first film. However, her wavering loyalty to him led her to mercy kill Adam (Leigh Whannell), as well as to devise traps that were fundamentally inescapable. That latter fact makes her an out-and-out serial killer, which – in the story’s big twist – Jigsaw already knew, and which led him to devise all of 'Saw III'’s games to actually test her! She fails that challenge, as do Jeff and Lynn. And that raises the question: isn’t Jigsaw exceedingly bad at helping people see the light? Since all of the 'Saw' films end in blood, guts and wailing, isn’t he, as Amanda claims, torturing and tormenting to no appreciable end? The nagging sense that Jigsaw’s too stubborn to see the failure of his own ways comes to define him at 'Saw III'’s conclusion, even after he supposedly – stifle your laughter now – dies.
'Saw IV' (2007)
Jigsaw may be dead, but he’s still full of surprises – literally! 'Saw IV' opens with a mortician discovering a tape inside Jigsaw’s corpse that contains more game-initiating messages. The action then segues to Jigsaw’s from-beyond-the-grave mission for Lieutenant Rigg (Lyriq Bent), who must learn to stop trying to save everyone. That’s a funny lesson, given that his test involves saving his partner (Donnie Wahlberg, who’s still alive!). Oh well – that makes about as much sense as the rest of 'Saw IV,' which dives head-first into Jigsaw’s past (via endless flashbacks), and comes up with one baffling revelation after another.
The biggest of those involves the fact that, while Jigsaw was working with Amanda on the first three films’ tests, he was also working with someone else on the games featured in this film. How he had the hours in the day to concoct so many ruses and lethal apparatuses is left unexplained (because it’s, you know, impossible). Also baffling is the fact that the root cause of Jigsaw’s anger, and thus his crime spree, was actually the loss of his unborn child – a confusing explanation, given that Jigsaw previous said, in the original 'Saw,' that his inspiration came from surviving his suicide attempt!
Also factoring into Jigsaw’s latest plans is a corrupt lawyer, who’s affiliated with Riggs and Jigsaw’s shady ex-wife Jill (Betsy Russell). Even more dim-witted, however, is the film’s climactic eye-opener – Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), who’d been a Jigsaw prisoner throughout 'Saw IV,' is actually the killer’s TRUE disciple! Although if that’s the case, why did Jigsaw feel the need to leave Hoffman a posthumous taped message hidden in his rotting stomach?
To confuse viewers, of course!
'Saw V' (2008)
Now plummeting fast down the gore-lined rabbit hole, 'Saw V' opens with Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson) finding a taped Jigsaw message, then getting caught in a trap, and then miraculously escaping. Soon, Strahm begins to suspect that Hoffman is Jigsaw. He’s not, though – or, at least, he wasn’t originally. Rather, he was a copycat who killed his sister’s murderer using a Jigsaw-like device. But that imitation only annoyed holier-than-thou Jigsaw, who subsequently turned Hoffman into his actual heir, by telling him that “Killing is distasteful!” and that “The heart cannot be involved ... It can never be personal.”
Since Jigsaw incessantly kills (if often by proxy), and since his own heart was involved in his original test against the man who killed his unborn baby (as seen in 'Saw IV'), these statements make Jigsaw a goofy hypocrite. That doesn’t bother Hoffman, whom it turns out was working with Jigsaw on ALL of the previous film’s contests, and who now sets about punishing a new batch of victims while also hiding his true identity from snooping Strahm. How Hoffman has the time or energy to both carry out Jigsaw-ian plans, and to investigate those crimes as a cop, is a question left unanswered – even as the finale suggests that Jill might be – dumb-Dumb-DUMB! – Hoffman’s accomplice.
Saw VI (2009)
Having framed Strahm as the new Jigsaw killer, and then promptly murdered him, detective Hoffman seems in the clear at the start of 'Saw VI.' Yet it then turns out that detective Perez (Arthena Karkanis), whom Hoffman thought he’d killed, is actually alive! So now, more suspicion is cast his way, requiring him to work overtime to keep his psycho identity a secret. When not preoccupied with Hoffman’s cover-up, 'Saw VI' concerns itself with his history turning into Jigsaw 2.0. And moreover, it details Jill’s complicity in Jigsaw’s crimes – both in the past and in the present, since a box she inherited from her husband at the end of 'Saw V' details his wishes to have her and Hoffman test a health insurance company cretin who screwed over innocents, including (as lengthy flashbacks elucidate) the sick Jigsaw.
Much criticism is leveled at insurance companies for not giving people a chance to fight for their lives, which Jigsaw thinks his madness does. And we also learn that Amanda was the girlfriend of the junkie who killed Jigsaw’s baby, and that her guilt over that event led her to initially embrace Jigsaw’s self-help-through-torture cause. At every turn, however, 'Saw VI'’s story merely highlights the emptiness of Jigsaw’s legacy, as the latest set of traps spawn not redemptive success stories (which he labels Amanda to Jill in a flashback – oops!) but just more mutilation and misery – a situation ironically summed up by Jigsaw’s critique of health insurance companies: “We’ve got it all ass-backwards here.”
'Saw 3D' (2010)
Since Jill tests Hoffman (on Jigsaw’s posthumous orders) at the end of 'Saw VI' -- and he manages to survive -- the series’ final installment focuses on Hoffman’s desire to exact revenge on Jill ... in 3D! But that’s not all, since the film also focuses on a supposed Jigsaw victim named Bobby (Sean Patrick Flanery) who’s peddling a phoney survival story – and blather about the transcendent effect Jigsaw’s test had on his life – for media fame and fortune. As such, 'Saw 3D' effectively taps into the fundamental phoniness of Jigsaw’s entire ethos, which is fully exposed as just an excuse for moralistic psychos to sadistically punish people they don’t like, and for celebrity-craving losers to make a name for themselves.
That censure of Jigsaw comes via both Bobby’s tale – which ultimately has him enduring a real do-or-die gauntlet at the hands of Hoffman – and through the reappearance of Cary Elwes’ Dr. Gordon, who evidently managed to escape after sawing off his leg at the end of the first film. In the film’s closing moments, Gordon turns out to have been Jigsaw’s real, honest-to-goodness, I-swear-he’s-been-helping-Jigsaw-since-'Saw-II' accomplice, unbeknownst (preposterously) to either Amanda or Hoffman. If that been-there, done-that twist suggests that the series has run its course, genuine proof comes from the fact that Jigsaw himself, Tobin Bell, only appears for a couple of brief cameos, and to little end.
Consequently, 'Saw 3D' closes out its saga with much blood but without managing to render its mythology either lucid or logical.
Game over, indeed.
Nick Schager has written for The Village Voice, Esquire, The AV Club and The Dissolve. You can contact him directly on Twitter.[googleAd adunit="cutout-placeholder" placeholder="cutout-placeholder"]