Saw (2004) is a low-budget horror film directed by James Wan (Wan also created the story) and written by Leigh Whannell (who also performs the role of Adam). It had a $1,200,000 budget and accrued a worldwide total of $103,911,669 since its opening American wide release on Halloween 2004. It has spawned numerous sequels and the image of Billy the Puppet has become truly iconic. Saw is considered to be the first film of the “torture porn” genre (and for this reason is typically linked to Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005)). Because he believed so much in this project, James Wan gambled and took no “up front” salary, instead opting for a percentage of the film’s returns instead. This was a smart move, as it remains one of the most profitable horror films of all time. Saw II (2005) was approved for production the weekend of Saw‘s opening. Given all that we know now, it is surprising that Saw was originally intended for straight-to-video release, but this was changed after it received overwhelmingly positive response from early screenings.

Because of its minuscule budget, Saw was filmed in just 18 days and includes no exterior shots. All of the bathroom scenes were shot in order in just six days. There were no rehearsals.  This was also Wan’s and Whannell’s first film after graduating from film school. They could only afford one room, so they decided to write a horror script that would only require one room. This was the short which they first used to market the feature-length version of Saw. 

In stark contrast from most horror films, all of the characters who die in this film are men.

Plot Summary

Adam, a photographer, suddenly wakes up submerged in a bathtub, finding himself chained by the ankle to a pipe in a disgusting, abandoned bathroom. Lawrence Gordon, an oncologist, is similarly chained by the ankle in the same room, directly across from him. Between the two men is a corpse with its head blown off, holding, in one hand, a revolver, and a tape recorder in the other. Each man finds a tape in his pocket. Adam’s tells him to escape the bathroom, while Lawrence’s tells him to kill Adam by 6 pm, or else his wife and daughter will be killed and he will be left to die.The two search the room as much as they can for clues. They find a bag containing two hacksaws and photographs (but Adam keeps this a secret from Lawrence until the end of the film) in a toilet. Lawrence also finds a box containing two cigarettes, a lighter, and a one-way cellphone. Lawrence urges Adam to fake dying using the cigarette dipped in the poisoned blood of the corpse, but their anonymous captor realizes the fraud and electrocutes Adam through the chain. During Lawrence and Adam’s time in the bathroom, we also see scenes of Lawrence’s wife and daughter held at gunpoint by Zep, an orderly at Lawrence’s hospital. Zep instructs Lawrence’s wife to call the one-way cellphone which Lawrence found in the box. She tells him to not trust Adam’s lies. Lawrence gets Adam to reveal that he had been paid to stalk Lawrence and take photographic surveillance of his movements. Adam knows that Lawrence was having a sexual affair with one of his medical students. The person who hired Adam to do this was ex-police Detective David Tapp, who, in a series of flashbacks, is revealed to have obsessively suspected Lawrence to be the infamous serial killer known as Jigsaw after one of his hospital pens was found at a crime scene. We also see a number of flashbacks of Jigsaw’s previous “kills.” As one detective notes, Jigsaw is technically not a serial killer because he instead finds ways of making his victims kill themselves or each other. He also always wants to watch his games play out from a “front-row seat,” often including peep holes or hidden video cameras in his torture-rooms. The detectives manage to get testimony from the sole survivor of Jigsaw’s games, Amanda Young, a heroin addict, who alleges that her experience in the games has made her a better person who now knows the value of life. She states that Jigsaw helped her. Back in the present, Tapp, although retired, still harbors suspicions that Lawrence is the killer. He rents an apartment across the street from Lawrence’s apartment and watches the interior of the apartment constantly through hidden surveillance cameras and microphones. Unfortunately, there is a delay in these recordings, so everything he sees is about one second off. Thankfully, because of his surveillance, Tapp is able to help Lawrence’s wife and daughter fight off Zep. Tapp chases Zep into the sewers, where he is eventually shot in the chest. During this final fight, Lawrence is listening to the screams and gun shots through the one-way phone. Not aware that his wife and daughter are okay, Lawrence panics and begins to saw off his own foot so that he can shoot Adam in order to save his family using the corpse’s revolver. Zep enters the room right after Adam is shot, saying that he has to kill Lawrence because those are “the rules.” Thankfully for Lawrence, Adam is still alive and manages to overpower Zep and bludgeon him with the toilet’s tank lid. Lawrence crawls out of the bathroom promising Adam to get help. After Lawrence leaves, Adam searches Zep’s body for keys, but instead finds a tape and recorder, which he plays to discover that Zep wasn’t the Jigsaw killer, but was instead just another victim forced to play a game in order to obtain the antidote for a slow-acting poison in his body. After the tape ends, the corpse suddenly rises, pulls off the fake bloody make up, and reveals himself to be the Jigsaw killer. The audience will remember this man from some flashbacks- he was one of Lawrence’s patients who had an inoperable tumor. Lawrence refused to call him by his real name, John, instead distancing himself and his humanity from John, calling him “the patient.” John tells Adam that the key to the chain was in the bathtub he woke up in, but the key had gone down the drain. Adam tries to shoot John, but John uses a remote control to electrocute him. John shuts off the lights, yells “Game Over!” and seals the door, leaving Adam to die.

Captives in the Bathroom

Notes & Quotes

  • This is yet another film that can be tied to Jane Elliott’s conception of the prevalence of the survival game plot within fiction of the microeconomic mode. The Jigsaw killer carefully chooses his players by finding people who he feels do not “know the value of life.” One of these victims, Dr. Lawrence Gordon, is forced out of the late capitalist system in which he found himself living while playing Jigsaw’s game: while before this experience, Lawrence refused to see the individuality and humanity of each of his patients, calmly noting the impossibility of saving “the patient’s” life (all while refusing to use the patient’s actual name), and choosing to engage in a sexual affair with one of his medical students rather than spend time with his wife and child. His pager remained attached to his hip, calling him away from his family to work and his affair. However, once he finds himself chained by the ankle to a pipe in a disgusting bathroom with a stranger, Lawrence becomes far more embodied and aware of the value and precariousness of life. He ultimately chooses to amputate his own leg and kill a stranger in order to protect his family. Additionally, because John turned out to be the Jigsaw killer, the power dynamics have become flipped: once Lawrence was the reputable surgeon and John the silent, hopeless patient, but now, John is controlling the game while Lawrence is desperately trying to survive. Additionally, Amanda claims that Jigsaw actually helped her to become a better person and to live a better life because she was able to experience and survive one of his games. This psychical deliverance from our day to day concerns and behaviors can only be completed through a deeply embodied experience that requires the players to make devastating decisions in order to preserve (or develop) their life interest.

After sawing off his leg, Lawrence promises Adam that he will try to get help.

  • Saw is often discussed in terms of its proximity to 9/11 and the War on Terrorism. The videos and audio recordings which Jigsaw creates certainly recall the videos of terrorist demands and leaked footage of torture sessions. For more on this, Kevin Wetmore’s Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema would be helpful. I also think this extreme demonstration of gore and torture actually works against the patriotic militarism that Giroux writes about in his Terror of Neoliberalism. Rather than celebrate war, Saw leads its viewers into watching explicit scenes of torture, disembowelment, exploding body parts, amputations, etc. Thus, much like the players of Jigsaw’s games, we must go through an extremely embodied experience in order to begin to remove ourselves from this system of thought which prevailed in America following the September 11th attacks.

One of Jigsaw’s videos.

Saw (2004) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.