by Kyle B. Stiff
It’s easy to write off the SAW franchise as nothing more than “torture porn” or as a prime example of the kind of frenzied milking of cash cows that often occurs when a culture is in its death throes. Others admit that the first SAW movie was “good” but agree that the later installments were total crap. This is true by a certain standard, but it also misses the point of John Kramer’s love for humanity. The point that I mean to drive home is this: SAW is more than a film franchise. It’s the template of a new religion. The blade that can cut away bad habits is a philosophy that can heal this world. This world will eventually fade away; it will become gray, lifeless, and static because of the silliest reasons imaginable. That’s your world; you’re in it right now. Look at it. Someday, it will die.
Thankfully, John Kramer – the messiah known as Jigsaw – has shown us a new way.
“He helped me.”
Most of the SAW movies include detectives, cops, or special agents investigating the “Jigsaw murders” (Jigsaw is even referred to as a serial killer in most of the back-of-the-box blurbs). Jigsaw kidnaps people and puts them in strange, industrial-looking traps which he calls “games”. When the victim wakes, some sort of recording device will tell the victim that he is living a lifestyle that either demeans himself or others, then the victim must overcome whatever bad habit made him the kind of asshole that he is in order to escape the trap – or die a violent death.
In John Kramer’s philosophy, I can see three main points that make up the framework of his new religion:
One is the importance of forgiveness. You’ve got to forgive others, and you’ve got to forgive yourself.
Second is the importance of suffering. Nobody makes it through this life without scars.
Third is the importance of having your priorities straight. Let go of the bullshit and protect what’s important.
Note that all of these tenets are pretty similar to those espoused by plenty of religious traditions. It might be better to say that the religion of SAW is not a new way, but more of a violent rebirth of the old. A reminder of joyful purpose and meaningful living written in rusted metal and clockwork executions.
But the code of John Kramer gets really interesting with the case of Amanda Young. (This is going to be spoiler-rich territory, so if you haven’t seen any of the SAW movies, know that I’m going to be giving away a lot of plot twists. Then again, why would you be reading this kind of thing if you weren’t already a believer in the eternal love of John Kramer?) Amanda was one of the first people to overcome her programming and survive one of John Kramer’s games. She was traumatized, but instead of helping the police to track down her captor, she said to them, “He helped me.”
Helped her? We live in a dog-eat-dog world where the people on top eat the people down below. It’s a jungle in here, a pissing contest over territory, dignity, mating rights, jobs, respect, limited resources – and any rational person who was kidnapped and tortured would, of course, want to have the torturer imprisoned. They certainly wouldn’t forgive the aggressor!
This is exactly why the various police forces had so much trouble stopping John Kramer and his various disciples: They couldn’t step outside of their paradigm and understand the new way of thought pioneered by John Kramer. They were akin to the Romans dealing with Christ, like when Pontius Pilate said, “What is truth?” (with the implication that there is no ultimate truth, only earthly laws) and then washed his hands of the entire affair. Amanda Young was a heroin addict who had to do a lot of reprehensible bullshit to feed her habit; it is a fact that the terrible ordeal she endured woke her up to the fact that she was living a crap life (or “ignoring the gift of life” as John Kramer would put it), wallowing in despair, blaming others, blaming herself, blaming anything – instead of just letting go and living her life. The modern world never gave Amanda the tools to live anything but a meaningless life of suffering without end, and the police and their laws certainly weren’t going to add purpose to her life; only John Kramer could show her how to live a life of meaning, a life of purpose.
One thing I’ve never heard anyone discuss is the symbolism behind the reverse bear trap which Amanda survived (but I wouldn’t be surprised if others had discussed this). Literally, this trap is a closed bear trap that fits around the face; when it pops open, the mouth is violently torn open, killing its victim. Now, since a lot of John Kramer’s traps actually have something to do with the victim’s situation in life, and since we know Amanda was addicted to heroin and was most likely prostituting herself in order to feed her addiction, then I think the reverse bear trap was a metaphor for her not being able to “keep her mouth closed” – that is, she was unable to stop sucking dicks long enough to get her life in order.
Then she found her purpose – as a disciple of John Kramer.
Any fan of SAW is quick to agree that Amanda was an amazing character. We’ve been dealing with patriarchal religions (with their un-intuitive nature and willingness to coldly and rationally apply supernatural imperatives to the same tired-ass hunger for control that any collective of psychopaths would espouse) for so long that it’s no wonder people are curious to see how a matriarchal religion might work out. Amanda showed promise. She could have ensured the philosophical legacy of John Kramer…
But then she forgot how to forgive. She failed her final test.
His Message Is Righteous.
If the religion of SAW became a popular religion that was widely accepted by the establishment and had its own hierarchical structure complete with money-making schemes and child molestation cover-ups – that is, if the religion of SAW was as completely corrupt as Catholicism – then there’s no way the priests of the future SAW religion would put themselves inside the games they constructed (though they would probably have no moral qualms about forcing others into games). But the SAW franchise covers the early days of the SAW religion, where the message is still pure and the actions and will of the messiah-martyr can still be felt. To illustrate: The Catholic Church may claim Saint Peter as their founder, and even name him as the first pope, but the finely-dressed cardinals and bishops and various hierophants who make up the Vatican’s power structure bear little resemblance to the apostle who willingly died a violent death for the sake of his beliefs. If there were more SAW movies that were set in the future and which detailed such a religion, they might show soulless hierophants in charge of an army of goons who kidnap people, psychoanalyze them, torture them using various means tailored to the individual, then whitewash the entire affair via the belief that they are doing it in the interest of the victim; such a group would, I argue, bear little resemblance to the founder, John Kramer, who willingly placed himself and his own disciples into the games. John Kramer and his loyal disciples suffered, and even risked death, for the eventual betterment of others. In this respect, SAW is very, very similar to the tales of the early Christian apostles. Christ himself constructed a vast, elaborate game full of torture, soul-searching, and even death, with the eventual outcome that the empire he stood against fell and his own disciples were violently tested and became the seeds of a militant force that would rule over kings. Just as the actions of Christ have affected the world long after his death, so too did John Kramer “survive” even beyond the event of his own death.
I want to stress the purity of John Kramer’s ideals and actions. He is an example of that rare kind of person who exists outside of the “normal” world, the kind of person who can topple empires, change the course of history, create paradigm shifts in the way culture works, and who cannot be explained (and only vaguely understood) by mundane and pessimistic world models. He is on the same level as Christ, Plato the Buddha, Joan of Arc, Julian Assange, Flynn from Tron, and Yukio Mishima… that is, he is a messiah. He doesn’t just talk about how people need to improve, then torture a few victims and leave a trail of bodies. No, John Kramer puts himself into his own games. This is a man with a high IQ, incredible drive and determination, technical know-how, access to resources – and then he risks his own life just to get some nobody off the streets to forgive his enemies and love himself. In the second SAW film he was in an incredibly weakened state due to the cancer in his asshole. What did he do? Did he “take five” and try to find out how many naps in a row he could take? No, he continued the games and allowed an alpha male cop to beat the ever-loving shit out of him. He did this (among other reasons) so he could try to teach the poor idiot to relax, take a look at the crappy relationship he had with his son, and enjoy his life. That is heroism. That is a beautiful example of someone living their ideals (rather than just thinking about them) in a pure and straightforward manner, even unto death.
Then there was the fallen angel, the renegade disciple, the perversion of the ideal: Detective Hoffman.
His Love Is Everlasting.
Now, it’s easy to say that Hoffman represents Satan and is the counterpoint to John Kramer’s Christ-like persona in the SAW mythos. Where things get interesting is that Hoffman can also represent Saint Peter and act as a foil to Jill Tuck, who is quite possibly the Mary Magdalene of the SAW franchise. But let me give a little background…
Hoffman is a detective. He is completely ruthless. He lacks charisma, or even a human personality, to the point that it’s fairly safe to assume he is a sociopath. Where John Kramer holds the survival of his legacy over the survival of his body (but is even willing to put his legacy to the test and allow it to die if it is unworthy), Hoffman believes in the survival of his own body, or his “ego” if you want to get all metaphysical. He does come to appreciate John Kramer’s methods, and he seems to understand that a lesson can be drawn from surviving a game, and as such, he is not completely bestial. Still, he breaks the rules often and whenever it serves his purpose. There is a very telling scene in either the fifth or sixth film that shows Kramer, Hoffman, and Amanda preparing a game, in which Hoffman unceremoniously dumps an unconscious victim onto the ground. Kramer chides Hoffman for disrespecting the victim. Now, despite the fact that in the next few hours that victim will be twisted in a steel contraption that will kill him, for now the game has not yet begun – as such, John Kramer does not think they have the right to hurt the victim. To Hoffman, it’s all the same. Why not dump him on the ground? He’s a murderer; he deserves it; nevermind the fact that Hoffman was already a murderer at this point too. Hoffman is no stranger to abusing his power over others.
If we can already accept that John Kramer is a messiah (and really, why not?) and is analogous to Christ in the early days of the Christian church, then it’s easy to accept Hoffman as a Saint Peter-style disciple. Here are some examples…
When Christ was arrested by the Romans after praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, some of the disciples tried to fight back, including Peter who cut off the ear of one Roman. In the same way, Hoffman is a surgeon and a butcher when he has a blade in hand. In the sixth (I think) and seventh film, he commits incredible acts of savage brutality with a knife when others stand against him.
Peter, in some ways considered the greatest disciple, also fell the farthest when he denied that Christ was the messiah no less than three times when his back was to the wall. In the same way, Hoffman was, by far, John Kramer’s greatest disappointment. Hoffman was a murderer and a sneak and, as such, rejected the philosophy of John Kramer.
Peter made so much trouble that Christ once said to him, “Get behind me, Satan.” John Kramer continually chided Hoffman for his asshole-ish behavior and lack of empathy for others.
When Christ asks his disciple, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and “Who do you say that I am?” only Peter understands who he is and gives the correct answer: “You are Christ, the Son of God.” In a flashback in one of the later SAW movies, out of all of John Kramer’s disciples only Hoffman recognizes that 1) John Kramer is making a move against him (as shown in the elevator), and 2) exactly who he is: Jigsaw. The others were taken completely unawares.
While Hoffman did betray John Kramer’s philosophy and even tried to kill Jill Tuck (John Kramer’s ex-wife), it’s not fair at all to characterize him as a Judas Iscariot-style betrayer. Judas turned Christ in to the authorities, then killed himself in a fit of remorse. Hoffman never, ever tipped authorities off to Jigsaw’s true identity even though he had ample opportunity to do so; moreover, Hoffman is completely incapable of remorse. Hoffman is more of an “O ye of little faith” style disciple rather than an outright traitor. That is, until after John Kramer’s death…
Also, there’s an idea going around that Mary Magdalene was probably the spiritual heir of Christ’s teachings and stood in opposition to Peter, who was the earthly inheritor of Christ’s example. We see the exact same thing happen with both Hoffman and Amanda, and later with Hoffman and Jill Tuck. Peter and Hoffman both represent the patriarchy: order, rational thought, strength, materialism, justice over forgiveness, and – when the chips are down – abject cowardice. According to legend, Mary Magdalene and her divine child were forced to go underground, Peter was successfully martyred, Mary Magdalene was smeared and called a prostitute, and to this day some of the most untouchable and evil motherfuckers on the face of the earth are powerful figures in the Catholic Church. In terms of the SAW series, if Hoffman had gotten away then there was a very good chance he could have continued using the same methods of torture used by John Kramer, but coupled them with his own inflated ego, boundless cruelty, sneakiness, and lack of vision. He could have started a group much like our own Catholic Church – another group of power-hungry bureaucrats vying for supremacy.
So Hoffman is a Saint Peter-infused character at odds with Amanda Young and Jill Tuck, rivals who were also potential heirs to John Kramer’s legacy. And no one seems able to stand against him: He’s too ruthless, too cunning, too savage, too powerful, too determined to win. If the SAW franchise mirrored real life, then we could have very well seen a SAW film based in the future in which Saint Hoffman was venerated while an elite class of priestly torturers were raping little boys and getting away with it, as we see happen all too often with the kind of goblins that work for the Vatican today. Thankfully, the SAW series breaks from real life and presents a truly inspiring ending to the series. Enter Doctor Lawrence Gordon…
His Gift Is Life.
Doctor Lawrence Gordon was one of the unwilling players in the very first SAW movie. He was a cold, unemotional man. He had a nice-ass house, a hot wife, and a kid too, but he showed how ungrateful he was by having an affair. He was your typical “successful asshole”, a blue ribbon-winner in the rat race that is the American Dream. During several grueling hours chained to a pipe in a bathroom he was forced to grapple with his own sense of right and wrong, and when he finally realized that he would do anything to save his family… he hacked through his own ankle with a rusty saw.
Doctor Lawrence Gordon passed his test.
This is a good place to answer a question: Why so much suffering? Why so much brutal torture? My take on that subject is that life is one suffer-fuck of an experience. Everyone has their own unthinkable, unbearable Hell that they must endure. And it runs across the board, too: Even a guy born into extreme wealth who is married to a ridiculously hot wife, has multiple attractive girlfriends, attends the wildest parties imaginable, is not expected to work, and who has nothing but continual blessings to look forward to – even that guy sometimes stands shocked and is completely horrified by the amount of bullshit he has to put up with. He is a prisoner of this world, and that is enough.
So what does that suffering do to us? Does it make us overflow with empathy at our stricken brothers and sisters? Hell no, it makes us fight like mad dogs given rage-inducing suppositories. We’ll fight and crush and kill in order to secure a moment’s peace of fleeting happiness. The traps in the SAW films may appear brutal, but they are little compared to the experiences of anyone who has worked for a shitty boss for eight hours every day, or been trapped in a cold, loveless relationship, or lost someone dear to them, or who has accidentally looked at their own shitty behavior in dealing with others. The SAW traps, the games, are visual representations of the spiritual torture we all endure.
But with John Kramer’s methods, the torture actually means something. If someone cannot endure their suffering, then they are put out of their misery. But if they can endure, they emerge scarred and grateful for their life, grateful for all the little blessings that are so easy to take for granted. This is also why cops, detectives, and special agents are often forced to endure the worst games: They continually work in an environment of pessimism and aggression and, being hard-headed, it takes more to break through the armor they have put around their hearts.
Doctor Gordon’s test seemed especially brutal. Unfairly brutal, even! Just keep in mind that this guy had been torturing himself for years by chasing after society’s rewards and neglecting his family. He was nothing more than a successful zombie, like so many others… until John Kramer woke him up. Finally, in the last chapter of the SAW series, we find out that not only did Lawrence Gordon pass his test, he even became a disciple (and later an apostle) of John Kramer’s methods. This is something that did not happen in real life: Saint Peter won out over Mary Magdalene. But the SAW series improves on the New Testament (and overcomes the Church-manufactured Dark Ages) in a fit of glory by showing us Lawrence Gordon’s rehabilitation and initiation into the Rites of the Ascendant Scar.
What mythological template best fits Lawrence Gordon? We could always say that he is a “second coming” of Christ (but we can’t say much else about that – what would a returned Christ even resemble?), but we can also go further back to ancient Egypt and find Lawrence Gordon in the figure of Osiris. Osiris died, was reassembled, became a lord of the underworld, and gained the power of resurrection; Lawrence Gordon was reassembled by John Kramer (both physically with a prosthetic limb and spiritually as well) and was given the power to resurrect others using the methods of John Kramer. The Egyptian goddess Isis used a spell to resurrect Osiris; in some sense, Lawrence Gordon was activated when Jill Tuck delivered Jigsaw’s posthumous video to his office.
Also, Set was the eternal enemy of Osiris. After the death of Osiris, Isis conceived his son Horus, who beat the shit out of Set. In the same way, the role of Horus is taken by the two game players who survive the “alpha male” test at the beginning of the final chapter (I can’t remember their names, but their names aren’t important anyway). These two male disciples embody youth and vigor, and act as the hands of Lawrence Gordon, who is most likely too crippled to confront Hoffman (our stand-in for the god Set).
One of the final scenes, in which our three pig-masked disciples beat the crap out of Hoffman in a dingy parking lot, is one of the most glorious paybacks in all of cinema. Hoffman was about to make his final escape with a duffel bag full of money and guns (symbols of power in the old world), but these valuable objects were no help whatsoever when he was confronted with the world that John Kramer had made… a world that he could not sneak or bully his way out of. John Kramer created three disciples who were loyal even after his death, and were even willing to confront an extremely dangerous man who embodied the worst aspects of our world and Jigsaw’s world (that is, a sociopathic “dog eat dog” philosophy coupled with the willingness to capture and torture others). But as the three pig-masked devotees gracefully beat the ever-loving shit out of Hoffman, it became clear that John Kramer’s legacy would continue.
Note that we never see the death of Hoffman. In film, it’s common to see the bad guy die the kind of violent death that the audience needs to see in order to release any pent-up anxiety that has built up while watching the antagonist shit all over everyone, but in myth it’s much more common for the prime antagonist to be imprisoned or “bound”. In Norse mythology, Loki was bound with chains and placed in an inescapable prison after instigating the death of Balder, the son of Odin. In Christian mythology, the book of Revelations details the imprisonment of the devil for one thousand years after a great battle in the future, and in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is confined in Hell with his lower half frozen in ice. This is probably indicative of the fact that evil can never be erased, only contained. (That’s why we see Hoffman chained and locked inside the original “game room”, but the saw that once freed Gordon is taken away from Hoffman. His crimes were so great that no escape was allowed – only meditation in darkness followed by death.) In both the Norse and Christian legends, the antagonist escapes and stirs up shit once more. In the same way, any follower of John Kramer must continually put in check their impulse for vengeance, their hunger for power over others, and even be willing to place themselves within their own games (and even risk death!) in order to continue the work of helping others to let go of spiritual baggage and grow into something beautiful.
Hey readers! If you liked this post, you should check out some of my books. I’ve got an epic series called Demonworld, which is equal parts Mad Max and Lord of the Rings (think “science fantasy”), and a much-loved gamebook series called Heavy Metal Thunder which is currently a hyperlinked Kindle book but will be a fancy phone app any day now.