The SAW Films Don't Play Fair, And That's Why We Love Them

An ode to the franchise's punishing sense of melodrama and labyrinthine rug pulls.

By Simon Abrams · @simonsaybrams · May 14, 2021, 3:57 PM EDT
john kramer jigsaw 3.jpg
Tobin Bell in SAW II.

The key to enjoying the Saw movies is to know and anticipate that the makers of this nine-movie strong franchise will inevitably, repeatedly, and vigorously pull the narrative rug out from under you. The series’ most thrilling plot developments are also its most exasperating since they all serve to undermine the flow and the integrity of its overarching narrative. Starting with a plot point that has become the cornerstone of the Saw series: John “Jigsaw” Kramer (Tobin Bell) is dead. We know that John’s dead since, at the start of Saw IV, we’re treated to a hilariously graphic autopsy of his body. They saw into his skull, throw an elephantine portion of his scalp over his face, and then weigh his brain. So he’s dead, ok?

And yet: in every sequel since Saw III, Bell’s character – a civil engineer, cancer survivor and serial torturer – has been resuscitated through flashbacks. Even Jigsaw, a 2017 sequel that was presented as a reboot, begins by asking: how has John returned from beyond the grave to continue his pseudo-moral work, capturing and “test”ing his victims in consummately surreal Rube Goldberg-style deathtraps? I mean, John Kramer is dead, right? You saw him die, in Saw III. But…isn’t that his voice, on Jigsaw’s tape recorders? How’d that happen? The answer to that recurring question is rarely as compelling as it is promising, but it is part of an increasingly manic strategy of rug-pulling that I (and many others) have fallen hard for.

In this (very particular) way, the Saw movies remind me of a concluding scene from Murder by Death, when Truman Capote’s Lionel Twain, speaking for screenplay writer Neil Simon, dresses down his dinner guests, all of whom are caricatures of archetypal detective characters:

You’ve tricked and fooled your readers for years. You’ve tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You’ve introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You’ve withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it. But now, the tables have turned.

The Saw movies also make me think of Lars von Trier’s ghoulish arthouse provocations. Bear with me: in von Trier’s movies, even the respectable early ones, the joke often seem to be on von Trier’s audience. The House That Jack Built sneers at viewers and petulantly asks us why we enable self-absorbed sadists like Lars von Trier. And while your mileage may vary, I did not care for Antichrist because I kept waiting for something mean-spirited and self-defeating to happen. So when the fox started talking, I stopped caring. Some cinephiles admire the routinely chaotic nature of LvT’s depressive films – all yours, I say.


The Saw movies are more my speed: they’re all very eager (even desperate) to please, and always very up-front about their grotesque shell game logic. Their creative stewards often go out of their way to provoke and unbalance viewers, usually with more enthusiasm than technical prowess. Like in the first Saw’s car park flashback: we join Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes), one of the series’s first victims, as he remembers being jumped by a masked killer. Soon after that, Gordon’s flashback is re-presented to viewers so as to include a third character: Adam (screenwriter Leigh Whannell), a sleazy private investigator-style photographer and fellow Jigsaw abductee who also witnessed Gordon’s abduction (just before he is also kidnapped).

The sheer gracelessness of this revelation is instructive, as are the many little trust-eroding prompts that John weaves into the “game” that he makes Adam and Dr. Gordon play in Saw. They have to trust each other in order to rekindle their lost joie de vivre: “Most people are ungrateful to be alive.” But John, using a variety of sock puppet-like props and proxies, actively encourages his victims to mistrust everybody but him. “Don’t trust Adam’s lies,” John says, speaking through reluctant henchman Zep (Michael Emerson), who is in turn using Dr. Gordon’s disenchanted wife Alison (Monica Potter) to deliver John’s instructions.


Why would you trust John in the first place? He and the Saw writers so regularly withhold information that they make M. Night Shyamalan look downright lazy. In the first Saw, John tells Dr. Gordon that “you don’t need a gun to kill Adam," and in Saw III, John tells his victims (through type-written, calling card-sized notes) that “one bullet will end it all.” In that same movie, he insists that: “I’m not a murderer, and I don’t condone murder.” Because he gives his victims’ “choices,” right?

Once you accept that new characters – taking on new, or just newly important roles – will inevitably be reworked into the movies’ Exquisite Corpse of a story, you might appreciate how that sort of sudsy logic informs the movies’ high-strung drama, crude acting and dingy Se7en-esque aesthetic. I wasn’t being complimentary when, in my Saw 3D review, I compared the Saw movies to “a lumbering soap assembled via ret-conned flashbacks, grounded by a histrionic sense of morality and foregrounded by its attention to cheap sensation above everything else.” But these are all features, and not bugs, as I’ve since argued.


Then again, while everything I like about the Saw franchise is in that first movie, I also prefer getting utterly lost in the sequels’ Byzantine plot. So while I now appreciate Elwes’ cringeworthy, but somehow still note-perfect performance in Saw – “How did I get here? I had everything in order. My whole life was in perfect order…” – I also still favor Dr. Gordon’s re-appearance in Saw: The Final Chapter. Mostly for what Gordon symbolizes at that point in the series: a logic-defying return to the first movie’s inciting deathtrap.

In Saw: The Final Chapter (obviously not the “final” anything, but rather a franchise pit stop, like Highlander: Endgame), Gordon is revealed to be one of John’s accomplices. His flashbacks are presented as one of a few barnacle-like accretions, built on the backs of similar flashbacks from the previous sequels. In Saw II, Amanda (Shawnee Smith) – Saw’s reverse-bear trap victim – is re-introduced as John’s accomplice. And in Saw III, Amanda’s rewritten into Saw’s narrative using a few choice flashbacks, like when we see her help John to set up Adam and Dr. Gordon’s powerfully grimy escape room.


These flashbacks kick off an arcane tug-of-war for control of John’s “legacy” that begins in Saw II, when Amanda evokes the ending of Saw by slamming her own sliding door and declaring: “Game over.” As the new Jigsaw, this is Amanda’s final word to detective Eric (Donnie Wahlberg), who questions her sadistic bonafides. “Tell me where [John] is,” he growls. “Right fucking here,” she snarls. Then she makes like John Kreese, and sweeps the leg.

And if that was too esoteric: Saw III doesn’t end until Eric wails at Amanda, “You’re not Jigsaw, bitch!” She is, bitch – but not for long. Because in Saw IV, the wantonly cruel policeman Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) is introduced as John’s successor, and then seemingly confirmed as such in Saw V during a series of flashbacks that reveal that he, too, was helping John set up both Saw and Saw II’s traps.


Then Saw VI escalates Hoffman’s hostile takeover of the Saw narrative – think of him as a heel wrestler who steals Amanda’s rightfully earned title belt – before Saw 3D adds an additional flashback-intensive wrinkle: Dr. Gordon also apparently helped John set up his Saw II traps. Because Dr. Gordon is a fan favorite, unlike Adam, who’s abruptly revived and also suffocated by Amanda in Saw III (though his desiccated corpse is briefly shown in Saw II). And so, after a successful IRL fan-led campaign to bring back Westley, Dr. Gordon returned in Saw 3D, where John even says, during a flashback, that Gordon was instrumental in setting Saw II’s traps. “Without you, my work over the last few years would not have been possible,” John says.

And then, in Jigsaw, there’s even more flashbacks: while Jigsaw takes place some time after the events of Saw 3D, its flashbacks are set before Saw, and introduce viewers to another previously unheralded John Kramer acolyte. This guy’s name is Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore), and he’s a forensic pathologist who helped John to work on his first series of “games” (after having mislabeled John’s X-rays from the first Saw). Dr. Gordon has somehow disappeared, possibly because – ok, hang on – while Saw 3D was intended to be the first of a two-part story, the series was not popular enough to sustain another sequel. Not immediately anyway. So in Gordon’s place, we got Logan, who, like Hoffman before him, was apparently unworthy. The odds on Logan showing up in Spiral do not seem favorable, though they’re also not exactly zero either.


With each new sequel, the makers of the Saw movies continue to refine their gonzo, I-meant-to-do-that formula, which arguably reached a nutzoid peak with Saw VI, when Hoffman was chased by not one, but two different investigators. Because somebody’s got to fulfill the otherwise thankless role of Barely Developed Cipher Who Must Stumble Upon the Plot For Us. Somebody like SWAT team Lieutenant Daniel Rigg (Lyriq Bent), who, in Saw IV, follows a series of clues that are left for him by Hoffman. Rigg is also motivated by Eric Matthews’s disappearance following Saw II. Just like FBI agent Strahm (Scott Patterson), who chases after Jigsaw in Saw V because his partner, Agent Perez (Athena Karkanis), got shot in the face by one of John’s janky-looking Billy puppets.

But in Saw VI (and at the tail end of Saw V), Strahm is also pursued by FBI agent Dan Erickson (Mark Rolston) since Strahm’s investigation of Hoffman eventually becomes too erratic to go unnoticed. Imagine a conga line of square-jawed detectives, each one thinking that they’re chasing the same guy, but actually poring over a deathless stream of blown-up surveillance photos, neatly labeled microcassettes (“Play me”), and eerily legible graffiti (“Save as I save”).


Now throw in an adjacent line of secondary characters, all of whom are equally unimportant beyond their supporting roles in John’s flashbacks. You will not have met these characters until they need to be introduced through a series of flashbacks. On the one end of this strictly figurative conga line is Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), John’s ex-wife, who appears in the flesh for the first time in Saw III, but is only given a backstory, centered on a methadone clinic and an unfortunate miscarriage, in Saw IV.

On the other end of this secondary character line are relatively minor personalities who only serve to provide another flimsy layer of narrative continuity between the movies. Their personalities also do not matter beyond a point because they only exist to pose questions to the movie’s more central detective characters, who are also essentially ciphers (despite their respective missing partners and/or colleagues). So Saw VI victim Simone (Tanedra Howard) briefly rolls up to a Jigsaw survivors group meeting in Saw 3D – and then vanishes. And in Jigsaw, we learn that Mitch (Mandela Van Peebles), one of John’s first victims, apparently sold a faulty bike to, uh, John’s nephew? I didn’t even know he had a sibling, did you? Of course you didn’t, because that plot point wasn’t introduced until Jigsaw, and because the Saw movies are driven by their effects rather than their characters.


When Jigsaw came out, I compared its creators to inept, go-for-broke street magicians who, despite bad taste and timing, will stop at nothing to entertain you. That last part might be hard to accept given how confrontational and impenetrable the Saw movies often are. But the meaner and more incoherent the movies get, the better they are. They’re all about cruel misdirection and flamboyant execution, just like Algernon’s line in The Importance of Being Earnest about playing the piano: “I don’t play accurately – any one can play accurately – but I play with wonderful expression.” Well, maybe not “wonderful," but you get the idea.

John’s specious ideas about morality – and the healthcare industry, and people’s general inability to appreciate life – is also ultimately only as important as the movie’s elaborate torture devices: they effectively push your buttons, but don’t really keep the Saw movies moving forward, defying all common sense and standards of quality. Because like good (or bad) magic acts, the Saw movies are designed to explain, in retrospect, why you should never have expected a bunch of magicians to play straight with you. They habitually and obviously withhold essential information in order to get your blood up. So don’t trust them, unless you like being conned. (I do, don’t you?)


Most of the Saw movies are about distractingly ornate confidence tricks: hotheaded detectives – mostly the ones from conga line #1 – are often baited with just enough information to get them from one death trap to the next. Rigg is told that he should not try to save everybody in Saw IV, so of course he runs through a door (despite Eric’s verbal warning not to), thereby triggering a trap that kills Eric. And in Saw VI, Strahm has to learn to trust Hoffman enough to voluntarily enter a Criss Angel-looking glass coffin (filled with halogen-lit ice chips??). Because Jigsaw has always encouraged his victims to “save themselves," or something.

I know what you’re thinking: those weren’t John traps, they were designed by Hoffman, whom we’re often told is unworthy of being called “Jigsaw.” John essentially says as much when he describes Amanda as “the closest I’ve ever come to a connection, to being understood…” But Hoffman’s just a man-sized plot device, too. He distracts viewers from the many different times that John himself was unclear, dishonest, or flat-out misleading. Like in Saw II, when he uses pre-recorded surveillance footage to trick the SWAT team into thinking that they’re watching one of his games as it’s being played. Or in Saw IV, when John tricks drug addict Cecil (Billy Otis) into running towards him; John steps aside at the last minute, which causes Cecil to fall into a bramble (a bushel?) of barbed wire. That’s not a trap, that’s a Looney Tunes gag!


Then again: even Amanda, John’s preferred student, does not play fair, like in Saw II, when her test’s subject Addison (Emmanuelle Vaugier) tries to retrieve a potentially life-saving syringe from a see-through box. Unfortunately for Addison, the syringe’s plunger isn’t secure, so its contents spill everywhere before they can be injected. Mind you: this is in Saw II, one whole film before somebody in the movies comments on Amanda’s poor puzzle construction.

Then again: the Saw movies have never had much integrity beyond pure, cheap thrills. And why would you expect them to? Why trust the overheated, finger-wagging authority of a movie series whose ethical guiding light (John) tells us point blank, in Saw II, that he not only did not coin the nickname “Jigsaw," but also has a perfectly rational explanation for why he takes a puzzle piece-shaped chunk of his victims’ flesh? It’s obviously “a symbol that the subject was missing something. A vital piece of the human puzzle. The survival instinct.” That line hails from the Theatre du Grand Guignol, ya goofus, not Strindberg.


Later, in Saw III, John describes a torture device (The Rack) as “my personal favorite.” And in Saw V, he critiques Hoffman’s “inferior work” on a Pit and the Pendulum-style trap: “If you want a true edge, you have to use tempered steel.” John also baits Eric in Saw II by explaining that if he doesn’t save his son Daniel (Erik Knudsen) in time, Daniel will bleed “from every orifice in his body.” If you seriously consider this man’s ideas or stated motives, then that choice is entirely on you.

My long-suffering college buddy Bill sometimes jokes that the Saw movies are all thematically united by a simple conceit: he (John) was in the room the whole time. Because John was alive (but unconscious) throughout Saw, getting up only to wrap things up with a lusty “game over.” Then, at the end of Saw II, Daniel is revealed to have been in the same room as Eric throughout that movie, locked inside a combination safe with a time-release lock and an oxygen mask. When asked, John teases Eric about Daniel’s location with an appalling dad joke: “Oh, he’s in a safe place.”


Next: Saw IV’s twists reveals that that movie takes place at the same as Saw III. And finally, Jigsaw’s twist reveals that its two competing sub-plots – a series of Jigsaw games held at Jill’s pig farm, and an investigation into those games, led by Detective Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) – take place at two separate times: before Saw, and after Saw 3D. These grasping, head-scratching twists are the surest sign as any that soap opera logic is the key to enjoying the Saw series. Because you haven’t lived until you’ve pored over a Saw sequel’s Wikipedia page with one of your best friends, trying frantically to get the license plate number of whatever just hit you (at least, that was our experience with Saw IV).

Gory nihilism aside, the Saw movies remain a humid breath of fresh air. They’re not so bad that they’re good, but rather succeed on terms that their creators constantly revise in order to suit their questionable aims. Not all of the Saw movies have great twists, but they all benefit from a wonky sort of continuity, which constantly reassures viewers that everything and anything that ferries you from one gigantic leap in logic to the next? Totally intentional. You’ll never have to wait long before the makers of the Saw movies knock you over while trying to impress you with the next chapter in the tall-tale-worthy afterlife and times of John Kramer. His story’s rambling, shaggy dog details are the source of the Saw franchise’s most enduring legacy. And as Amanda says in Saw II: “By creating a legacy, by living a life worth remembering: you become immortal.”