The Philosophy of Jigsaw – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Jigsaw!
Written by: Amanda Scherker
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Mark Potts
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Jigsaw – Wisecrack Edition
Hey, Wisecrack. Jared again. While we were working on our Philosophy of SAW video, I came across something VERY unexpected. Apparently, critics have noted a structural similarity between the SAW films and French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s famous play ‘No Exit.’ So, I watched all 7 movies, read ‘No Exit,’ and immediately called bullsh*t. The connection was too tenuous. Then Jigsaw came out, and when I saw this, I was like, “Huh.” Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Jigsaw. And if you want more Jigsaw-related content, head on over to WisecrackPlus on Patreon for an exclusive podcast that dives deeper into the movie. And as always — spoilers and decapitations ahead.
Like all Saw movies, Jigsaw starts with a game: each player has to confess the horrible sin that snagged them an exclusive invite to the world’s worst warehouse party. If they don’t confess, they’ll turn dead AF. Given the chance to save their skin, each of the players take a solid pass, offering half-baked confessions, “I sold a kid a bike once. He had an accident ten minutes after I sold it to him. It’s not my fault he couldn’t handle such a powerful damn bike, alright? He died!” or professing their innocence. “Honey, my soul is clean.”
So, one by one, they’re voted off the island. Meanwhile, an assortment of sketchy detectives and forensic pathologists try to figure out why gnarly corpses keep popping up all over the city. Could the very-much-dead John Kramer be to blame? Eventually, the film’s creepy detective and creepy forensics guy come face-to-face in the ultimate creep-off, and we find out that forensics guy is the NEW Jigsaw! “You’re working with him?” “I am him.”
Oh, and by the way, everything you just watched actually happened 10 years ago — but don’t worry about that. Instead of focusing on the timeline fake out, we’re zeroing in on what brings fans to the Saw films in the first place: “I want to play a game.” The wholesome games! See, in the past, Jigsaw had one main party trick: building traps to heinously and creatively torture people. But in the latest film, Jigsaw’s moved into a more psychological realm: forcing his victims to confess their worst sins. Both versions of the game consist of forcing a person to choose between two unattractive options. “There’s only one key to open the device. It’s in the stomach of your dead cell mate.”
In the first seven films, Kramer asked each victim to choose between Door A: inflict excruciating pain on themselves or others, or Door B: give up and die. But in Jigsaw, the game’s been updated; now, his victims must choose between Door A: confess to their worst sin in front of a group of strangers, and make it home in time for Adult Swim or Door B: die a painful death. “While I am certain that there is a desire to point fingers at me for the blood that has been shed, unless you turn that finger inward, I assure you, more blood will be lost.” The game is still sprinkled with head-gnashing, leg-ripping devices. But these are more of a sideshow, a background threat, perhaps to encourage honesty. The evolution of Jigsaw’s game positions the act of confessing as the painful alternative to death, the central form of “suffering” that takes place in the film. Unlike the other films, confession, not the burning, slashing, or ripping of flesh, is treated as the harder, more pain-inducing moral alternative to instant death.
But let’s backtrack for a second: what moves Jigsaw to devote his life to making DIY medieval torture devices in the first place? As we explained in our Philosophy of Saw episode, Kramer shares the Early Christian view that suffering can be transformative and even life-changing. So enduring his traps can strengthen a person’s moral character and even redeem them for past naughtiness. As leader of this “CrossFit for the soul” Jigsaw establishes himself as a God-like figure, imposing his moral agenda on his captives. Similarly, Jigsaw’s new game draws from another aspect of Early Christianity: public confession and public penance. While today’s sinners can spill their guts in a low-key gossip session with Father Superior, 3rd century sinners were frequently required to confess their worst deeds in front of their entire church congregation, an act known as “exomologesis” and also “a total f**king bummer.”
According to early Christian writer Tertullian, exomologesis was an act meant to humiliate the sinner, essentially rendering them so totally pathetic they would “move God to mercy.” Likewise, Kramer demands the confessions of his captives in hopes of shaming them. Once confession was over, the person moved on to public penance, where the humiliation only got richer: Tertullian claims the sinner would be instructed by their bishop to do things like “lie in sackcloth and ashes…” – the ashes were a sign of “mourning” for your sh*tty spiritual condition. They were forbidden to bathe, and had to eat only “unseasoned food and drink.” To pass the time, sinners would prostrate, or lie stretched out on the ground groaning and crying, while begging their church leader and fellow church goers to pray for them. In Jigsaw, Anna seems to be taking a similarly penitent pose as she begs Kramer for mercy. So, like a 3rd century church leader, Kramer demands that his captives publicly confess their worst deeds. And BOY do they clam up the second Jigsaw asks them to talk about their pasts. “That’s it! That’s it! I said that’s it, man!” “Yeah, bullsh*t!”
In previous installments, the basic human desire to keep both eyeballs has made for a compelling reason not to follow Jigsaw’s commands.
This time, it’s just the characters’ shame that makes them reluctant to air their dirty laundry. This creates some decidedly baffling moments, best exemplified early on when Carly finds out that Jigsaw has injected her with a poison that can only be cured by an antidote found in one of these three needles: one is the antidote, one is harmless, and one holds a potent acid that will melt her face off and not in a fun Electric Daisy Carnival way. Carly figures out which needle would save her life, because one is numbered 3.53 — “Three dollars and fifty three cents.” “What? What does that mean?” “What a life is worth to me.” — which was the exact amount of money she got after robbing and killing someone.
To admit that, though, would serve as a kind of confession, so she doesn’t say anything. So that happens. So, why wouldn’t Carly confess? It seems odd, unless you consider the clue helpfully graffiti-tagged on the wall: That sign isn’t just there for fire-safety. It’s a reference to Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous play, ‘No Exit.’ First, a quick breakdown of the play: three dead souls, Ines, Estellem and Joseph meet up in hell, though this version of hell is less fire and brimstone and more waiting room. Wondering how they ended up here, Estelle and Joseph make like the Saw victims and lie about their crimes. “Estelle?” “Yes?” “What’ve you done? Why have they sent you here?” “Well, that’s just it. I don’t know. In fact, I’m wondering if there hasn’t been some terrible mistake.”
Eventually, each confesses their worst deeds. Both Estelle and Joseph feel the weight of judgement for their crimes. So, what does this play have to do your favorite torture porn series? Both center around a group of strangers trapped in a room awaiting an unknown, but presumably horrific, punishment. But perhaps a Saw producer was guilty of wikipedia-ing himself, because the eighth film really doubles down on the ‘No Exit’ shtick in ways both big and small. Notably, there’s an eerie similarity of the crimes committed by Sartre’s character, Estelle, and Jigsaw’s Anna. Estelle, after becoming pregnant by her illicit lover drowned her newborn baby as he looked on. “And he could see what I was up to. He kept on shouting, ‘Estelle, for God’s sake, don’t!’ I hated him. He saw it all. He was leaning over the balcony. And he saw the rings spreading on the water.”
Afterwards, he killed himself in grief. “He did as he wished.” “You mean he blew his brains out.” Similarly, Anna suffocated her newborn child, but convinced her husband it was his fault, forcing him to commit suicide. But now for the principle similarity between Jigsaw and ‘No Exit:’ the emphasis on the painful nature of confession. To understand why confession is so hard in both works, we need to examine Sartre’s idea of “the look,” which he illustrates through the following example: imagine that you are spying on your roommate’s awkward breakup through a keyhole. Suddenly, you become aware that your other, cooler roommate, is down the hallway, watching you act creepy and judging you for it.
This state of awareness of being watched by others is called “the Look.” When you become aware of “The Look,” you are forced, at least momentarily, to embody the viewpoint of what Sartre calls, “the Other,” or an outside entity with its own, separate consciousness. In embodying the Other’s viewpoint, you feel a major discomfort, i.e. shame, which causes you to pretend you weren’t spying, you were just smelling the doorknob. Extended over a lifetime, your awareness of “the Look” causes you to live inauthentically, or what Sartre calls “bad faith.” Bad faith is basically a failure to properly use your freedom or to take responsibility for your actions. And Kramer’s prisoners certainly seem to be living in the baddest sort of faith. Take Carly: despite her clear choice to let a woman die by not giving her an inhaler, she sees it as an accident. “It wasn’t my fault!”
However, Sartre would tell Carly that even in choosing not to do anything, she still exercised her free will and made a choice: to watch this lady asphyxiate. Similarly, Mitch, Anna, and Ryan all lie, revising history to make their crimes seem like accidents or honest mistakes. “If he hadn’t fallen asleep, he wouldn’t have rolled over and suffocated our baby.” Kramer essentially accuses his captives of first, being criminals, and second, of living in “bad faith.” “In the past, you have all put your own interests above others, and then lied to yourselves, and deceived the world about your callousness, your larceny, your criminality.” Here, notice Kramer’s focus not just on each individual’s crimes, but on their subsequent lies, self-deception, and coverup. “Now, you will look in the mirror, and you will face who you really are. The choices you have made may cost you your life. You cannot escape the truth.”
Sartre similarly used the mirror as a metaphor for the “look” of the other. Of course, Kramer’s captives won’t look in an actual mirror, he means that their crimes will be reflected back to them by the judgement of their fellow prisoners. That judgement can be torture all by itself, like a reverse bear trap for your soul. In ‘No Exit,’ after the characters’ confess their crimes, they suffer anxiety about the judgement of their peers, “Oh, poor dear Estelle. Liar. You didn’t even shed a tear at the funeral,” fret about their reputations on Earth, “There they are, slumped in their chairs, they’re thinking Garcin’s a coward. One’s got to think of something. That chump Garcin is a coward,” and beg for reassurance that they are not bad people. “Just someone. Just one person who would say positively that I did not run away, that I’m not the sort of man who runs away, that I’m good and brave and decent and all rest of it.”
This leads Joseph to utter the famous line, “Hell is other people,” not just because somebody always leaves their cellphone on in the movie theater, but because the existence of other people means the existence of their judgement, and the shame that ensues. That’s particularly true if, like Joseph, you’re hanging out with the people who know your worst secrets. If hell is other people knowing your worst deeds, it makes sense that confession is Kramer’s new favorite torture device. He’s trying to force his captives to face Joseph’s anguish by making them publicly take responsibility for their choices. For instance, he makes Ryan relive his own worst deed: as a drunk teenager, his joyride inadvertently caused a deadly car crash. He escaped responsibility for it, until all these years later: “Okay, I f**king did it. I did it, but it was so long ago. I want to live.”
Now, Sartre’s version of Hell in ‘No Exit’ is not the only one that the Saw series references. John Kramer also must have studied up on ‘Dante’s Inferno.’ In it, the 14th-century Italian poet depicts his own, presumably fictional journey through nine concentric circles of hell, each housing a different brand of sinner suffering for eternity. Dante’s hell is governed chiefly by a rule called “contrapasso,” Latin for “to suffer the opposite.” Under contrapasso, sinners suffer punishments that are either related to, or the extreme contrast of, the crimes they committed on Earth. For instance, astrologers and false prophets are forced to walk forever with their heads turned backwards, a punishment for trying to look into the future or win the Powerball. Chronic suck-ups are buried in excrement because well, you know. Importantly, the rule of contrapasso means that a person’s eternity in hell is predestined by their own freely chosen sins. Throughout the Saw series, Kramer shows some flair for contrapasso punishment. Think of the time he forced a Heroin junkie to dig through a pit of needles in search of a key (Get it? Like, her addiction is the trap!) Or the cruel money lenders who had to pay for their lives in pounds of flesh? Or the voyeuristic sex offender who has to gouge out his eyes or lose all his limbs. Kramer’s traps in Jigsaw also share some of the same, uh, poetry as ‘Dante’s Inferno.’
For instance, we learn that Mitch sold a motorcycle with a faulty brake to Kramer’s nephew, who later died in an accident. So, what was Mitch’s trap? Secure this break lever, or be sliced up by a circular metal blade. Anna jams the machine, and we think Mitch is saved. But, fittingly, her homemade brake lever is faulty, and Mitch plummets into a death spiral. Later, Kramer presents the two last survivors, Anna and Ryan, with their final game in the form of a single shotgun and a vague riddle. “Now, if you want to achieve your freedom, you have to learn. You have to realize that you’ve been doing it backwards.”
Anna immediately lunges for the gun, assuming that to “win” the game, she has to shoot Ryan. Buut — Then, a broken key falls out – Kramer had stored the key to their freedom inside the weapon. Here, Anna shows that she hasn’t changed: she remains willing to ruin or take another life to save her own. According to Kramer’s reasoning, Anna is ultimately trapped and killed not by his game, but by her fundamental moral failings. Where Jigsaw stops making sense though, is when her choice also causes Ryan to be trapped in the barn after he at least somewhat assumes responsibility for his deadly joyride. And from there on, Jigsaw seems to abandon any semblance of a moral lesson, moving from the doomed barn adventures to the less interesting laser-collar-trap holding Detective Halloran and Logan the forensics guy. They each make their own confessions, “I’m so sorry. I confess.” and then Logan fakes his death, comes back to life, and reveals that he’s the new Jigsaw!
Then he leaves Halloran for dead. Savage. Logan may be John Kramer’s one-man tribute band, but will he further the moral philosophy of the series? Looks like we’ll find out soon enough: there’s already talk of a ninth Saw movie. With Logan’s final declaration “I speak for the dead,” it sounds like we’re in for some “forensic-pathologists gone wild”. But what do you think? Was Jigsaw an insightful philosophical inquiry? Or just an excuse to watch a guy get shredded into confetti? And is Logan a generic creep with all the charisma of a latex glove, or the fresh, new villain the Saw series needed? Let us know in the comments! And as always thanks for watching. Peace!