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Everyone's A Criminal: The Ideology of John Kramer

This post is going to talk about the Saw franchise in detail, and spoil several of the films. If you wanted to watch them and feel like this would ruin the experience for you, then here is your warning to stop reading and go and watch the films. 

This post also briefly mentions sexual assault and self-harm, though no details are discussed. If this is something that you are uncomfortable with or unable to cope with, I won't blame you for skipping this post. Take care of yourself.


There's an instinct to disregard the Saw franchise, even in horror circles, as an empty spectacle with nothing to offer its audience. The horror sub-genre 'torture porn' was created specifically for these kinds of films, as a way to categorise them as pure affect with nothing of value to say. However, as part of my research on this topic, I was determined to justify my enjoyment of this franchise because I know, in spite of their flaws, the films are talking very loudly. They're saying a lot; granted, most of the time, its commentary is very heavy-handed, so much so I was able to find a mountain of academic research on these films and how they conveyed the 'extreme real-word fear[s]' of 9/11 and the experience of a country at war. But further than that, I saw on my recent rewatch of the franchise how it warps the idea of vigilante justice, and conveys neo-liberalism as horrifically individualistic, where the victim is on their own, left to their own devices, in a trap that's next to impossible. As Aaron Kerner asserts, torture porn, even with its negative connotations, attempts to negotiate and ultimately foreground 'the violence we can no longer disavow'. What I want to discuss here is the way this violence is used to reinforce as well as blur the lines between the punisher and the punished.

John Kramer, also known as Jigsaw, is our anti-hero, the one consistent thing throughout the films and the creator of an extreme form of therapy. What is viewed as senseless violence by the police and the public is framed very differently by John and his disciples. His behaviour, that of capturing people and putting them through various violent trials, is consistently treated (by himself) as a moral good, with his games being portrayed as a kind of fucked up self-care. In his eyes, his victims are those who have committed various crimes and should therefore be brutally rehabilitated and made to fight for their lives to see if they were worth living in the first place. He acts outside the law as a vigilante, and it's in the tradition of the vigilante, as Richard Maxwell Brown states, to 'take the law into [his] own hands', serving as a substitute for an 'absent or ineffective' system of punishment. Furthermore, John places himself above the law, setting himself apart as the impartial judge of corrupted people.

A film still from the Saw franchise. John Kramer is covered in blood and looking slightly off-screen.
Source: Under the Gun Review

Every crime is subject to a similar level of punishment, whether it’s self-harm, infidelity, addiction, racism or sexual assault. These transgressions are exposed and punished justly in his mind. He prioritises a neo-liberal ideology in relation to responsibility. Ignoring socio-political background or systems of oppression, neoliberalism 'ascribes virtually all responsibility for personal and social welfare to the individual, which is further articulated as crucial to individual liberty under the auspices of choice', as stated by Helene Shugart. On top of this, Kerner argues that John, in his methods, doesn't seek the abolition of laws, but rather a twisted and 'strict application of laws', with the intent of displaying their ineffectiveness to the audience but also to the victims. 

All of the films positions criminality against the police. Where John acts as a saving force for his victims, the police are in opposition to John, often several steps behind him in their pursuit. They are never able to fully stop a game from being completed or save someone whilst it’s happening. This relationship is further complicated once the police become members of the game, like Eric in Saw II (2005), or disciples of Jigsaw, like Detective Mark Hoffman. With Eric, he is unable to follow the rules of John’s game and is eventually killed by Amanda. The film is able to prove that, as an institution with violence and deceit at its core, the police cannot be reformed. With Hoffman, his corruption is outlined throughout the later films, through acts of brutality and the warping of John’s original philosophy, using it to enact revenge and not justice. The films argues, from Kerner's point of view, that the ineffectiveness of the police and the consistent evasion John and his disciples have from the law emphasises an idea that malevolence will continue to exist in the world and that 'there is no overarching authority poised to set things right'.

Criminality is not presented any better. As James Aston and John Walliss argue, Jigsaw selects his victims based on who he views as 'responsible for the decline in societal standards as his test subjects', and this almost always seems to be criminals, whether convicted or not. Saw II seems to evidence that it’s impossible for those who have previously been incarcerated to work together to complete the game. The films often adopt a cynical view of humanity in general but those who have committed crimes, whether legal or moral, and have not been justly punished in the eyes of Jigsaw often bear the brunt of this representation. Aston and Walliss observe that the films depict humanity as 'so debased and disconnected from life that liberal, progressive attempts to help [the victims] and legal attempts to sanction them are doomed to failure' and that the only way they can be saved is through 'vigilantism and a never-ending cycle of torture'.  It’s a very conservative idea that retribution is the answer to solving societal ills, and this is furthered by the figurative black spot of criminality these people wear. They are written as flat and selfishly driven, often never developing into good people or people in general. Criminals, like the police, are there to be punished and die. 

A film still from Saw 3. Amanda Young is looking off-screen. She is holding a syringe in her hand.
Source: Bloody Disgusting

What's probably the most fascinating thing about the Jigsaw method of punishment is how easily it's exploited, and this is most evident in John's disciples, Amanda Young and Detective Hoffman. Whilst initially a victim and survivor of a trap in Saw (2004), Amanda is transformed into an avid follower and surrogate daughter of John. We are once again introduced to Amanda in Saw II (2005), shown lying face down on the floor in the middle of a game, similar to how John famously spent the majority of the first film. Whilst this foreshadows her alliance to John and deceit to the other victims in the game, it also connotes the extent Amanda wishes to be like him, to be as strong-willed as he is. It's in Saw III (2006) where we see how he has transformed her. The films convey that without him, she was a slave to her vices, that which were drugs and self-harm. These have been channelled into trap creation and rejecting the victim status John applies to her.

However, John notes that Amanda is lead by her emotions and that this doesn't embody what his ideology expects from her, which is a cold and objective selection of victims as well as a "fair" method of torture, giving the victims a chance to escape, even if it's incredibly difficult. Amanda is hell bent on exacting revenge and often kills indiscriminately. Where John is aware that personal attacks will only make her pain greater, Amanda seeks out these acts in anger, and continues with her self-harming ways. The film seems to argue that criminality is inherent and that John's ideology is not applicable in the way he seems to think. Amanda's masochism isn't gone once she's been through the trap or even when she works with John; in fact, it seems to be amplified. On the one hand, this emphasises huge flaws in his vigilante ideology, bolstering the idea that a point of view that prioritises retribution aimed at the individual is ultimately self-centred and entitled. On the other hand, his methods map onto neo-liberalism perfectly; if the ideology fails you, that's your responsibility, not John's. Not society's.

John's philosophy of salvation, created with the intention of getting people to value their lives, is warped to such an extent over the franchise that by the seventh film in the series, the Jigsaw murders are public knowledge and people are using the prestige associated with being trapped to become famous. Aston and Walliss are apt in their observation that John is consistently ineffectual in his attempts to be a 'social avenger and redeemer of a fallen and lost society', and that these films therefore can be seen to criticise the conservative perspective that violence taken outside the law is necessary to cure the world of its ills. What these films offer us is immorality concentrated and heightened with the intention of highlighting to the audience the extent they can be innocent in their consumption of the text. The Saw franchise seems to confirm our impotence in the face of such violence and our willingness to condemn criminality without a second thought; as Kerner argues, it emphasises the individual audience member's 'inability to consider where torture porn is really coming from: us'.


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James Aston and John Walliss, To See the Saw Movies: Essays on Torture Porn and Post-9/11 Horror, ed. by James Aston and John Walliss (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2013).

Richard Maxwell Brown, Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American and Vigilantism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975).

Aaron Michael Kerner, Torture Porn in the Wake of 9/11: Horror, Exploitation and the Cinema of Sensation (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015).

Helene A. Shugart, Heavy: The Obesity Crisis in Cultural Context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).