Game Theory: The Saw Film Series

High concept, interlinked exploration of a serial killer or Walmart bin torture porn trash?  Spanning eight films, with a ninth reimagining via Chris Rock on the way, the Saw franchise is a unique combination of near brilliant long form storytelling and audacious kill sequences that are housed within an evolving and often purposefully confusing narrative.  The result was an event series that debuted a new film every Halloween.  Critically maligned, the films continue to make staggering box office returns, ensuring that legions of fans will continue to get new entries for the foreseeable future.  What follows is an analysis of each of the current films in the series. 


The original starred Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) and Leigh Whannel (who also wrote the script) as a pair of men chained up inside a room with a dead body between them.  What begins as a dirty, green tinged chamber piece eventually reveals itself to be a contemplative serial killer saga.  Using multiple timelines and jumping backwards and forwards, director James Wan would create a formula that would years later be perfected in other longform series, mostly on cable.  Featuring some genuinely uncomfortable kill sequences and a shocking twist ending, Saw set the stage for a franchise due to its immense box office success, a realization that continued to echo in cinema until the COVID-19 pandemic.  Saw was the beginning, the film that made studio execs finally realize the economic power of the genre. 

With respect to Jigsaw, the idea of a serial killer who genuinely respects life is intriguing.  No one could have foreseen the films to follow, but the character is layered and nuanced, whose mysterious origins would be explored over the course of the series.  The Achilles heel is in the finale, which was polarizing due to various plot inconsistencies that were layered throughout the first two acts.  Regardless, the twist ending would become a staple for the series, complete with specific theme music that die-hard fans would hungrily anticipate each Hollow’s Eve. 

Saw II

The immense success of the first film spawned an immediate desire for a sequel.  Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, his script was originally intended for a different film called The Desperate, however it was repurposed by Whannel and inserted into the Saw universe.  The premise shifted from the locked room setup with two victims to a mysterious house with a group of people trying to escape, including a character from part one.  A secondary plotline mirrors the first film in which a police detective is dealing with Jigsaw simultaneously as the kidnapped are attempting to extricate themselves from various traps.  Dina Meyer reprises her role as Det. Kerry, a role that she would reprise once more.

This is the film in which the series begins to take an even darker, almost mean-spirited turn.  None of the characters are particularly likable, making Jigsaw's terrible work even more palatable.  However, some of the kills are inventive and there is one scene involving a pit of syringes that is truly terrifying.  While the overall production may be inferior to the original, the second film is more consistent, even if it cannot escape the green soaked cinematography of the 2000's.  


It's difficult to talk about the next two entries without intermixing them.  At this point in the franchise is when it begins to reveal its true complexities.  This is a series of eight interconnected films.  They jump forwards and backwards, run into one another, and constantly deliver surprises that true fans immediately react to.  Beginning with part three, plotlines begin to increasingly intersect and Jigsaw himself becomes more of a concept than a character.

The action focuses on Jeff, a man whose child was killed by a drunk driver.  Jigsaw chooses to test him and what follows is a series of terrors that involve all the players in the tragedy.  However, the meta plot also continues to unfold as the fates of several characters from previous entries are revealed.  It feels almost as if everything is coming to a head, especially with the looming demise of cancer ridden Jigsaw.  Despite the beginnings of a unique concept in the horror genre, the film cannot escape the predictable concepts of the first two films, ultimately creating a somewhat redundant affair.  

Saw IV

One of the more promising entries in the series, part four delves into Rigg's story, a police officer from the previous entries, while exploring concepts of fate, legacy, and revenge.  It is also is intimately entwined with part three, but to reveal would spoil the now expected "final twist" that fans began to speculate upon months before Halloween, when a new entry would release.

While Rigg plunges into his dangerous odyssey, Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) and Agent Strahm begin to explore their relationships and ultimate destinies.  Part four is unique because it begins the endgame (despite requiring three more films to get there) and it reveals so much about the previous films, it's a potent display of the concept at work.  While the gore continues to become tiresome, the method in which the stories are bound to one another continues to impress.  It is, however, where Jigsaw's absence begins to be felt.  What begins as an intriguing exploration of the virtues of life, begins to ebb into a story about killer fathers and their errant adopted children. 

Saw V 

One of the few entries where some of the "tested" actually survive their ordeals, part five may be the weakest of them all.  Exceedingly violent, the film is split into two simultaneous parts.  The first involves a group of 5 people who must work together to escape Jigsaw's latest game.  While the usual group dynamics in a film such as this happen as predicted, there are some inventive kills and ultimately, it seems, the victims may finally have learned something from their situations.  

The second story involves a cat and mouse game between two of the principal characters as true motivations and other, unspeakable revelations are made.  The conclusion is nihilistic, even for a universe such as this, as it appears, darkness truly wins forever.  

Saw VI

The strongest film in the series is not only one of the most exciting parts of Jigsaw's legacy, it is also a scathing indictment of America's healthcare system.  The tested this time around are the staff of a notorious insurance firm, the ones who insured Jigsaw before his death.  Additionally, the killer's heir is also being tested, without their knowledge.

What makes part six stand apart is Kevin Gruetert's precise direction.  Gruetert edited the previous five films and the way he handles the various timelines is remarkable.  Beyond that, the kills are vicious, a gruesome reflection of capitalistic greed and predatory corporate policies.  Including one of the best traps, a roundabout shotgun lottery, six also has one of the best finales, setting up the ultimate showdown in the next film. 

Saw 3D/VII

The end of everything (just kidding).  The final entry brings together ghosts from the past with horrors of the present.  Focusing on Jigsaw's widow, the story involves her attempting to get immunity by outing an apprentice as the killer from the previous films.  This in turn becomes another cat and mouse game with a satisfying, if predictable conclusion.  Beyond this is the central game, this time focusing on a con artist who claims to have been a previous victim of Jigsaw.

One of the most disappointing aspects of this film is that it doesn't seek to answer any of the moral questions the series has posed.  Ultimately, the audience will never know if Jigsaw "cured" the surviving victims.  His mark on the world is a legacy of death, not the intriguing philosophy that was put forth in the first few films.  Despite this, there are a few bright spots, such as the return of Cary Elwes in a survivor support group and some of the traps this time are intricate and brutal.  Unfortunately, it is simply not a fitting capstone for the outstanding storytelling that runs throughout.  


The final film (pending 2021's? Spiral) takes place ten years after the events of the other films.  It focuses on two detectives who believe that Jigsaw may be operating once again, despite being dead.  One of the better films in the series, Jigsaw doubles down on the melodrama and dials back the gore (a bit).  One of the joys of being a devotee to these films is the understanding that you, the viewer, are also being tested.  Rules constantly change, timelines are edited, and the dead consistently rise from their graves, all in the name of a bloody, violent good time and Jigsaw is a perfect symbol of that truth.  Almost reinventing itself in the process.  While the plot links are less direct, the DNA remains and the guilty pleasures of the series will hopefully continue with next year's (?) Spiral.

--Kyle Jonathan