Written by: Goran Child, Special to CC2K
Five chapters in, the not-so-venerable torture porn franchise has devolved into a self-referential mess. And we love it.
The portentous, bronchital voice of the Saw franchise’s masochistic (Old Testa)mentalist Jigsaw is arguably its most iconic gesture, both for fans of the series and its plethora of diagetic victims.
All together now: "Hello [insert stereotypical American epithet]; it’s time to play a game."
Usually this is followed up by an unnecessarily verbose synopsis of exactly why the person who has just woken up in a reverse bear trap/bone-twisting mechanism/nest of razor wire has found themselves in that ill-starred position. It’s all quite long and drawn out – more Monopoly or Risk than Hungry Hungry Hippos – and is becoming even more so, as each film sporadically takes the viewer back to various scenarios from the previous installments, to explain how and why the traps were set. Nobody, however, explains how Jigsaw manages to accumulate such a vast array of warehouses and vacant municipal bathrooms: perhaps the sixth and final chapter of the saga will deal principally with property acquisition.
In Saw V, this basic template remains unchanged – I don’t really agree with the reviews I’ve read which suggest that it marks a generic shift from horror to detective thriller, for reasons that will be divulged shortly – and its pretty icky opening scene continues the films’ tradition of offing some hapless clown before any exposition is bothered with. However, in a couple of interesting touches, this kick-off is later revealed to be an imitation, rather than the genuine Jigsaw article, and is the first of two devices which see the mangling of hands. These bookend the film, and offer an unambiguous mission statement regarding Twisted Pictures’ attitudes towards the sort of reviewers who have coined the derogatory term "torture porn" in response to the overt sadism of the Saw films and its grim ilk. Hands, in Saw V, are a sacrificial metonym for the sins of the flesh, rather than crafters of incisive social-consciousness pieces for Time magazine (which in this film is shown to have placed Jigsaw on its cover), and they are punished accordingly. If aforementioned interesting touches signify anything, it’s that these films are far more intelligently self-referential than the mainstream acknowledges.
Add to this autotextual maelstrom a series of knowing horror tropes – superfluous scary pig-masks and cultish outfits, talking puppets, a final scene in which a room closes in on itself, Sonic the Hedgehog-like, and a protagonist who goes wandering off on his own into unpleasant scenarios at every opportunity – and you have the beginnings of something a little bit postmodern, and a quintessential horror movie. Additionally, the film works on the assumption that the viewer will not only have seen the previous four films, but prepared a quasi-obsessional dossier on them, like Danny Glover’s character from the first one. I happened to watch the first Saw film, for the third time, the night before I saw the fifth, and if I hadn’t, I would have been as perplexed as Jigsaw’s victims are before his inevitable expository videotape flickers into life. Brazenly populist, to be sure (no preview tapes are ever available to critics), but also most rewarding to the interested viewer, who doesn’t merely see the franchise as an example of culture gone south. Indeed, the peep-hole discovered in the film’s first trap seems to suggest that the film-makers, just like Jigsaw, know exactly what they’re doing.
In order of the impression they made, here are the ingredients of my Saw V viewing experience. Perhaps these little synecdoches will impart my opinion of the film better than a reasoned synopsis could:
Fifteen minutes in, and I’ve seen one human being cut in half, and another one assaulted by a disguised figure; two cleverly unpleasant traps which result in mutilation and death; three trailers for inferior-looking films (this month’s Seth Rogen vehicle, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, The Transporter 3, and Quarantine, which will be to its Spanish source-text [Rec] what The Ring was to its Japanese counterparts, i.e. less good); four or so references to rooms becoming graves, crypts, tombs, etc.; and five unsympathetic individuals implanted within a network of painful devices. It’s efficient, I’ll give it that. Jigsaw’s (unrealistically attractive) wife is given a box, the contents of which are pertinent (to judge from her intense facial expression), but we are not told what is within – although it’s quite likely to be a deus ex machina for Saw VI, if we’re honest. A capitation is disappointingly bloodless. Both protagonist Agent Strahm, and antagonist Agent Hoffman could stake a convincing claim to being a Sylvester Stallone lookalike. The former also does a nice Austen-esque line in vocalizing his thoughts and suspicions to the audience, which as a plot device means we can forego the tedious business of mimetic exposition which extends the running time of most movies. Each trap in the Saw series gets at least one replay elsewhere in the catalogue, which allows this installment’s director, David Hackl, to utilize any extra footage he might have inherited from his predecessors. Did I mention efficiency? In a frisson of ethical ambiguity, various people who are apparently good guys confide in others that the grim deaths of various waifs and strays at the hands of Jigsaw do in fact represent one paradigm for justice. One of the five people in the film’s central network of traps shouts "fuck" an awful lot, and looks and acts like Matthew McConaughey; another could pass for Pete Townshend without much trouble: he’s even less likeable, just like in real life, and because he’s British, he knows lots of things. Jigsaw seems to know an awful lot about the demography of criminal activity: he authoritatively reels off a spiel about recidivism rates to an imprisoned Hoffman with little difficulty. Occasionally, he raises the pitch of his voice when shouting and squeaks a bit – but rest assured, his utterances always end in the gravelly tone on which they began. Hoffman and Strahm have similarly rough baritones: Hoffman’s because he’s a bad guy, and Strahm’s because he is forced to shove a biro into his trachea to escape from a trap.
All of Jigsaw’s traps seem to be accessible to anyone who fancies having a look at them, even after what is presumably several months, even years. The scene in the lift, where a disguised Jigsaw looks sidelong at Hoffman for a lengthy period of time, before pouncing on him and jabbing him in the neck with a syringe, is quite homoerotic. Jigsaw seems to be able to turn almost every conceivable social situation into a neat binary from which one can either die, or escape having suffered a corrective amount of pain. One wonders what he’s like between the sheets. One gets the sense, from the upping of the jigsaw motif throughout the film, that this is very much part of a semi-contained diptych, like Saws III and IV, or the Madonna and Child. Strahm isn’t the only one with an ability to provide ad hoc cogent summaries of events under extreme pressure: the two survivors of the initial group of five prisoners manage, with a nail bomb explosion less than forty seconds away, to provide a slick account of the psychology of what Jigsaw put them through, which includes, helpfully, several sentences of verbatim quotation from the great man. The video tape Jigsaw leaves for his wife is less intimidating than the ones he leaves for his victims. Hey… all of the flashback scenes are Strahm’s solipsistic fillings-in – and then Strahm proves fallible in the final scenes! It’s Wuthering Heights! It’s Iserian literary theory! It isn’t really. When one woman butchers another with what looks like a cattle-prod, are we to read Matthew McConaughey’s response of ‘What is it with you two?’ as black comedy, or absolutely dreadful script-writing? Similarly, does survivor-woman’s whisper of ‘We won’ just before she passes out from blood loss not suggest that Jigsaw’s traps aren’t really having the desired effect? Or could the writers simply not resist the opportunity to throw in a bit of postlapsarian social commentary, regardless of its cohesion with the rest of the narrative? When the five prisoners keep repeating ‘one of us had to die,’ and ‘it’s survival of the fittest,’ why does it not raise the possibility in their minds, as it instantly does in the minds of the viewer, that this assumption is overly rash? LITERALLY NOBODY IN THIS FILM SPEAKS ABOVE AN INTENSE GROWL!
If all this seems a bit hectic, disordered and truncated, it reflects quite well how this film operates, with its two-dimensional characters and industrial metal music video direction. One half expects Marilyn Manson to cameo at some point. In a sense, it shares more common ground with a TV series than it does with a movie franchise: the amount it expects the audience to keep in mind would be more practical if a new instalment was proffered every week, instead of every year. However, if the nay-sayers are to be believed, and these films are for the brainless and perverse, does the series’ auto- and intertextual demands on the viewer not suggest otherwise, creating a tension of sorts? It’s a bit like a cinematic Hulk Hogan: ostensibly clumsy and redundant, but nevertheless delighting the fans who have followed him from the beginning, and are aware of his historical significance. Just as Jigsaw, by this point in the series, has become a concept or ideology, rather than an individual (which is why, in my summary above, I use the name to apply to both John Kramer and Agent Hoffman), so does Saw V demand to be understood from within its own structure of reference. There’s simply no point watching it otherwise: you might as well go back to talking about how good Mulholland Drive was. And if this mirroring of viewing experience with the films’ structures seems curiously self-aware, then I would suggest that this is no accident. Crucially, Hoffman’s imitation mechanical-presses-and-pendulum-trap, with which the film begins, actually occurred before the events of the first Saw movie: if this example of imitation preceding reality doesn’t set Baudrillardian alarm bells ringing, I don’t know what will. Moreover, it also provides an oblique but welcome response to the oft-raised issue of whether films such as these are producers, or products, of the society they are perceived to be spoiling. And then we have the nature of that particular trap: it cuts someone in half, a clean division which reflects what the so-called ‘torture porn’ genre has historically done to the viewing public. It’s time to play a game, indeed.
As a film, then, Saw V is humdrum, if darkly entertaining, fare. But as part of the zeitgeist-y mesh that is the Saw franchise, it’s postmodern, defiant, and fairly compelling. A glorious, self-referential mess, in which everything is done with antiquated video cassettes and puppets, and everyone is in the habit of leaving everyone else notes with things like "I know who you are" scrawled in marker-pen. Scenes of writing, as Hillis Miller would call them, are all over the place here: maybe the comparison with Wuthering Heights wasn’t as facetious as it first seemed. Nobody, but nobody, is immune to an utterly unpleasant demise, but what they have in common is an ability to talk at great length about what is happening to them: the films are even a zeitgeist within their own microcosm. Ugly, barely-coherent, but compelling, like someone in the throes of death – and that’s exactly how they, and we, like it.