Faces of Death

Reviewed by Assaf Sagiv

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

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f 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.

Assaf Sagiv is Associate Editor of AZURE.

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