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Faces of Death

Reviewed by Assaf Sagiv

Saw, a film by James Wan;
and Saw II, a film by Darren Lynn Bousman


If we are to believe Michel Foucault, the Western world is no longer able to stomach public displays of cruelty. Of course, things were once very different: In his classic study, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, the French thinker devoted a lengthy and forbidding chapter to the “spectacle of the scaffold” that was common in Europe until two hundred years ago. The old practice was usually carried out in accordance with a basic formula: Condemned men were led to the gallows in the town square, severely tortured, and finally executed before a crowd looking on in fascination at the terrible sight of a fellow human being’s agony and death.
Alas, every show must come to an end. Solemn ceremonies of atrocity no longer suited the delicate tastes of modern culture. In the early nineteenth century, in the face of growing moral protests, they were replaced by more “humane” forms of punishment and discipline, most of them hidden from the public eye. Thus, according to Foucault: “The great spectacle of physical punishment disappeared; the tortured body was avoided; the theatrical representation of pain was excluded from punishment.”
Had he happened upon some of the horror films produced in recent years, Foucault might have modified his thesis. The two Saw movies, for example, which feature an especially creative and innovative serial killer, offer the viewer something that has been denied him since the end of the eighteenth century: A spectacle of physical punishment, theatrical representations of pain, and tortured bodies aplenty. All this, of course, did not detract from the excitement with which these movies were received. On the contrary: The first movie, directed by James Wan, was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2004 and went on to become a box-office hit and an instant cult classic; Saw II, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, was released in October 2005 and did even better commercially, topping the U.S. blockbuster list for a while. Considering these precedents, it seems likely that the third installment in the series–scheduled for release in the fall of 2006–will follow suit.
Notwithstanding the Saw movies’ box-office success, it is easy enough to brush them off as cinematic junk, a typical product of a genre not usually taken seriously by critics. But it would be a mistake to ignore the underlying message in these movies or to disregard the reasons for their success. A closer look at Saw and Saw II may point to a cultural phenomenon of considerable importance, and may offer an explanation—if only partial—of why it is that public displays of monstrous cruelty have turned, yet again, into mass attractions.
 
As the name suggests, the main objective of horror movies is to frighten. This is their justification and the secret of their success. A good horror film is supposed to make the viewer jump out of his seat, or at least make his flesh crawl. Saw does a good job of this, but the movie’s aspirations do not end here. It aims higher. It attempts to teach us a lesson; it strives to be a morality play as well.
Ostensibly, there is nothing really new in this. Even the most exploitive horror films toy with some kind of moral agenda, however twisted. Slasher movies like Friday the 13th or Halloween feature scenes of excessive violence and sexuality, but their true message is puritan through and through. The victims of the vile acts depicted in these movies are usually youngsters who indulge in permissive behavior. The deaths of these reprobates at the hands of the murderer can be seen, therefore, as retribution for their profligacy. (Of course, we may be tempted to indulge here in the obligatory Lacanian analysis and discuss the “obscene” core of morality, or vice versa, but we must restrain ourselves.) In one of the main scenes in Scream, a thriller with an ironic self-awareness, one of the movie’s heroes points out the main principles of the genre. “There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to survive a horror movie,” he explains to his friends. “First, you can never drink or do drugs. Second, you can never have sex. Big no-no. It’s a sin. It’s an extension of number One.”
The strange moral high-handedness in horror movies has thus reached a stage of post-modern self-parody. But Saw and its sequel take this one step further, and the result is not at all amusing. The star of these movies, a serial killer nicknamed “Jigsaw,” is not your garden-variety psychopath; he sees himself as a judge and an executioner, who punishes others for offenses major and minor. Moreover, the traps that he sets—grotesque challenges that drive his victims to death or insanity—are supposed to mirror those very same offences. A person who tried to commit suicide by slashing his wrists is forced to crawl through a maze of razor wire—this time in order to remain alive; an insensitive and arrogant doctor who daily informs his patients that they are about to die of cancer is ordered to shoot someone he has never met, and, by doing so, to become a “cause of death” in his own right; a police informer, who has made his living out of spying on others, is ordered to pull out a key that is hidden in his head, behind his eye socket, in order to examine if he is capable also of looking “inwardly”—and so forth. In all these cases and in others, the killer (who rejects this title, since, according to him, his victims cause their own deaths) devises a clever punishment, or test, that constitutes a perverse reflection of the victim’s own crimes.
Jigsaw’s modus operandi is reminiscent–and not by chance–of the sort of moral mechanics prevalent in Dante’s Inferno. The first part of the Divine Comedy depicts the tortures and agonies that are the lot of the wicked in hell. This miserable world conducts itself according to a strict logic of contrapasso (counterpoise), a divine retribution that parallels the crime. The sinners who are guilty of carnal sins, who subjected reason to lust’s command, are forever buffeted by a violent storm; the heads of the fortune-tellers turn in the opposite direction to their bodies and they are doomed forever to face backwards; the fraudulent counselors, including Ulysses, are wrapped in tongues of fire, which conceal them just as in life their speech concealed their thought; and the traitors, who turned their backs on the warmth of human relationships and love of God, are trapped in a frozen waste. They all get a punishment that perfectly and pitilessly fits their sins, with no hope of salvation. When Dante breaks down in the face of these sights and bursts out crying, he is censured by Virgil, his guide. “Are you foolish as the rest?” he asks. “Here pity only lives when it is dead. Who is more impious than he that sorrows at God’s judgment?”
There appears to be something in the cruel rationale of the contrapasso that appeals to our own generation. Modern readers of Dante might perhaps feel a measure of discomfort at the sadistic creativity invested in his descriptions, but it is hard to deny his allure. Not by chance is the Inferno considered the most interesting part of the Divine Comedy; it captures our imagination, not only because it gives us a sense of order and meaning, but also because it answers to a darker drive, a secret delight at watching the suffering of others—a pleasure that is “human, all too human,” as Nietzsche put it—while harnessing them in the service of an exalted moral objective, under the auspices of none other than God himself.
 
But there is no God in the urban hell of Saw; he is either dead or hiding his face from humanity. His place is taken by a serial killer–not as a representative of pure evil, but as a personification of justice gone wild. This is a horrifying investiture, but the creators of Saw move confidently down a road that has been paved already in movies like Seven (1995) and Hannibal (2001). Like killers such as John Doe in Seven and Hannibal Lecter, Jigsaw is not a regular mortal but a person with extraordinary understanding and initiative and, as such, he takes a position of superiority over a legal system floundering in mediocrity and bureaucracy. He can adopt a god-like point of view, trying the “hearts and reins” of men and deciding on the fate of his peers as he sees fit. And exactly like his divine counterpart, he is a jealous and vengeful god. “Don’t ask me to pity those people,” John Doe says to the detectives who question him. “I don’t mourn them any more than I do the thousands that died at Sodom and Gomorrah.”
In certain respects, installing a serial killer in a niche reserved for God is an unsurprising cinematic ploy. Although in reality serial killers are miserable creatures, eaten up with sexual frustration and morbid obsessions, on the silver screen they often take on super-human dimensions. This fictitious image has become a cliché, but one that audiences never seem to tire of. If anything about moviegoers is to be learned from the success of these films, it is that they enjoy watching larger-than-life psychopaths: Brilliant, fearless, and, as in Saw, even invincible.
One explanation for the bizarre reverence with which these murderers are depicted could be grounded in the action that defines the serial killer–that is, in the taking of life. More than any other criminal type, he holds in his hands the absolute authority to decide
between life and death. By seizing this sovereign authority, which has been relinquished by the penal systems in most of the world’s enlightened countries, the killer acquires the kind of power normally reserved for God, and he, too, works in mysterious ways, beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. In Hannibal Lecter’s first cinematic appearance in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), he declares to the FBI agent who caught him: “If one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is.” Perhaps this is how Lecter and his murderous ilk come across to their audiences: As modern incarnations of ancient pagan gods, terrible beings who demand, from time to time, human sacrifice.


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