Faces of Death

Reviewed by Assaf Sagiv

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

But this explanation gives us only part of the picture. It may account for the compelling presence of serial killers in public consciousness, but not for the feelings of identification they seem to arouse. In his book Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture (2005), David Schmid, a professor of English at Buffalo University, points out that the enormous public interest in serial killers is partly “a result of the way in which consumers ‘identify’ with these killers in the sense of wanting to be or think like them.” This is undoubtedly a disturbing phenomenon and one that requires addressing–and Saw provides us with an intriguing hint.
In an important scene in Saw II (written, like the first movie, by Leigh Whannell, in collaboration with the director, Darren Lynn Bousman), the killer reveals his motives to one of the detectives who have come to arrest him. Jigsaw tells the policeman that his murderous career began only after he discovered that he was suffering from a terminal disease:
Can you imagine what it feels like to have someone sit you down and tell you that you’re dying? The gravity of that, hmm? Then the clock’s ticking for you. In a split second your world is cracked open. You look at things differently, smell things differently. You savor everything, be it a glass of water or a walk in the park…. But most people have the luxury of not knowing when that clock’s going to go off. And the irony of it is that that keeps them from really living their life. It keeps them drinking that glass of water but never really tasting it.
For Jigsaw, the news of his imminent demise is like a sudden illumination that allows him to reach a higher state of awareness and raises him above the trivial life most men lead. This notion is oddly reminiscent of some of the ideas put forth by Martin Heidegger in his monumental work Being and Time, and especially the part that deals with what he calls “being-toward-death” (Sein-zum-Tode). As social creatures, Heidegger explains, we tend to sink into a life of alienation, mediocrity, and banality. But if a person truly accepts the fact that he is destined to die, if he confronts his own temporality with honesty and courage, then he can begin to live a meaningful life of “impassioned freedom towards death.” Only a person like this is worthy of being considered complete and authentic, since he is free to choose his destiny and to “become resolute with his ownmost possibilities.”
The criminal hero of the Saw movies does indeed decide to take full and unconventional advantage of his remaining days and use them to test “the fabric of human nature,” as he puts it. But as someone blessed with penetrating insight into the real essence of existence, he has only disdain and animosity for the common people, who continue to live out petty and insignificant lives. “Most people are so ungrateful to be alive,” he complains. Accordingly, he sets diabolical traps that will teach his victims to value each remaining breath, each remaining heartbeat. He does not make do with taking personal stock of his life; he wants to punish and to teach, to force others to see the world as he himself sees it. This is the didactic legacy he intends to pass on to the generations to come (as well as to Saw III).
It is difficult to shake the impression that the movie’s creators–together with a large number of the viewers—would have signed on the main points of Jigsaw’s credo and embraced such an outspoken protest against the quiet desperation of modern life. After all, in the moral universe of Saw and movies like it, the worst offense, the greatest scandal, is insipidity, the horrible waste of human potential on a shallow existence. “What sick ridiculous puppets we are,” muses the killer in Seven, “and what a gross little stage we dance on. What fun we have dancing and fucking. Not a care in the world, not knowing that we are nothing, we are not what was intended.” Although many people might sympathize with the contempt and alienation expressed in this monologue, its aggressive excess demands a high price in blurring, even eliminating, the difference between good and evil. Through this pseudo-existentialist prism, normal, dull, routine life might be construed as something that is to be ashamed of, whereas a psychopathic murderer comes across as an authentic rebel who lives on the edge–in other words, on some level at least, as an admirable figure.
Saw delivers its violent ethic dripping in blood and gore. Presumably, its message would have been received differently were it not for its shockingly brutal displays. Had its creators wished, they could certainly have found artistic justification for this vile exhibition in the writings of playwright and essayist Antonin Artaud, founder of the “Theater of Cruelty.” Artaud, a disturbed genius, strove to restore to the performance arts some of the wild vitality they had lost when they adopted a bourgeois dignity. The sentiments in his 1933 second manifesto of the “Theater of Cruelty” would most certainly have been to Jigsaw’s taste:
The Theater of Cruelty has been created in order to restore to the theatre a passionate and convulsive conception of life, and it is in this sense of violent rigor and extreme condensation of scenic elements that the cruelty on which it is based must be understood. This cruelty, which will be bloody when necessary but not systematically so, can thus be identified with a kind of severe moral purity which is not afraid to pay life the price it must be paid.
It is questionable whether the creative powers behind the Saw movies had Artaud’s esthetic ideals in mind. And yet there is no denying a certain affinity between the avant-garde vision of the agonized artist and the mood reflected in these movies. This affinity results from similar feelings of dissatisfaction and yearning: Dissatisfaction in the face of the vacuity that characterizes human existence nowadays and a yearning for a shocking experience that will shatter this ossified reality. And if the only way to achieve such a climax is through a festival of cruelty, well, so be it.
This mood has brought “the spectacle of the scaffold,” to use Foucault’s expression, back to the public eye. Once again the masses are flocking to sites of public gatherings—once it was the town square, today, the cinema halls—in order to watch the suffering and death of other people. But even if we leave aside the difference between reality and fiction—which in any case loses it potency in our post-modern age—we must take into account another dissimilarity: Whereas the rituals of torture and execution described by Foucault were aimed at demonstrating the terrifying power of the sovereign and at sustaining the people’s belief in the political and legal systems, cinematic displays of serial murder and atrocity serve a quite different objective. They “reveal” to the viewers both the inadequacy of the existing order–the pathetic nothingness of their lives, the impotence of the authorities who are responsible for their security–and the greatness of the psychopath, who dares to transgress all boundaries and to spit in the eye of society.
Such a horrid state of affairs reminds us once again of Dante’s grim fantasy. In the third canto of the Inferno, the poet arrives at a dark plain, on the bank of the River Acheron, and notices a vast multitude of spirits, whining and shoving each other, all the while being attacked by angry hornets. These are the “miserable people” (genti dolorosa), who, Virgil explains, “lived without disgrace and without praise,” because they did not dare to do either good or bad. Their lives were so valueless that they are not worthy of passing through the gates of hell, since even the wicked—who at least had enough courage to choose a path—are superior to them. One can only imagine, therefore, the longing that these souls feel for the inferno that has been denied them, and how envious they are of utter sinners, who made it to the promised land. And maybe, with movies like Saw, we don’t need to imagine at all.

Assaf Sagiv is Associate Editor of AZURE.

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