In the “Saw” franchise, what are the philosophy and motivations behind Jigsaw’s actions?


John Kramer, better known as “Jigsaw,” is the driving antagonist behind Saw (2004) and its subsequent franchise of films. He is an extremely intelligent and demented murderer who never kills, instead ensnaring people in elaborately-conceived deathtraps where they are forced to endure damage to escape. His story is introduced through character discussion in Saw along with one of the greatest twist endings in horror history. His background would then be elaborated and his philosophy expanded in later Saw titles.

Kramer is a former engineer with an inoperable frontal lobe tumor. Following a failed suicide attempt, his impending death gave him a renewed perspective on life: one that made him deem himself worthy of testing others’ will to live. He decided that those who don’t have the stomach for pain or the ability to handle suffering don’t deserve their life, as negative experiences are a necessary part of living. Thus, he began capturing people who he decides have a moral or personal flaw and exploits that particular flaw with a customized torture trap, forcing the person to come to terms with their issue or allow it to be their demise. He calls these situations “games,” as each one offers a means of the victim surviving if they do what he decides is necessary to learn the value of life. Those who die, Jigsaw feels, didn’t deserve the alternative. The games regularly involve self-mutilation, harming others, or psychological torture.

Jigsaw believes his traps help people. He attempts to transform lazy, wanton humans into people with a refreshed appreciation for their existence. His ego is fluttered when Amanda (Shawnee Smith), the first person to successfully escape one of his traps, is verbally thankful for the experience after it happens. Amanda goes on to become Jigsaw’s apprentice and sees him as a father figure responsible for saving her life.

Darren Lynn Bousman, director of Saw II, Saw III and Saw IV, characterized Jigsaw as vastly different from the killer in any other horror story. “He’s not Jason or Freddy. He’s not even Hannibal Lecter,” Bousman says. “He’s a person with extreme beliefs and he really thinks he’s making a difference. He’s a vigilante if anything. He thinks he’s making a difference.”

Leigh Whannell, one of the key actors in Saw and the writer of the first three films, says of Jigsaw, “Freddie Kruger, Jason, Michael Myers - they’re all our generation. I think the kids wanted some new guys that they could take ownership of and Jigsaw was that guy. He’s the Freddie for this generation.”

Author Aaron Michael Kerner, in his book “Torture Porn in the Wake of 9/11: Horror, Exploitation, and the Cinema of Sensation,” says, “Without ever stating as much, the philosophy that Jigsaw subscribes to is that of libertinage. He is governed strictly by reason, and he executes his “games” dispassionately. The traps and the games are explicitly designed so that players/victims can extricate themselves if they precisely abide by the rules. And this is Jigsaw’s lesson - to remove ethics and emotion from the execution of justice.”

Human life comes with a ton of fleeting, mundane moments that don’t register in the conscious. Nobody remembers every detail of the day, every moment of their existence, because the inbetween details of life get lost beneath the larger moments. Every second of existence doesn’t have the force to establish itself in a memorable context, and vanishes into the atmosphere.

After discovering his terminal cancer, Jigsaw decided to focus on those moments—to absorb every second, every instant, as something unique. It’s a way almost everyone wishes they could live. Everyone has thought about the disappearance of time and told themselves they want to make more of an effort to treasure every moment they’re alive. One of the most intriguing components of Jigsaw’s character is this rather noble foundation—if he didn’t use his perfumed respect for life to set others up for torture, he may have become a poet or an inspirational speaker. His malice is founded on something so organic and wonderful that it deepens his depravity. His intentions are noble, but his methodology of moral Darwinism is so preposterously barbaric that one can’t help but be intrigued by him as a villain.

As the character says in Saw II (2005), “I’ve never murdered anyone in my life. The decisions are up to them.”