The Right Prescription

Psychotic Torturers for Obamacare

The latest Saw film redeems torture porn for statist do-gooders.  

By 10.30.09

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In 2006 New York Magazine film critic David Edelstein penned a hand-wringing essay on an emerging subgenre of horror films he dubbed "torture porn," which in his estimation were "so viciously nihilistic that the only point seems to be to force you to suspend moral judgments altogether."

Well, perhaps now Edelstein's gentle soul can find a measure of peace: The latest entry in the Saw series has lit upon a gaggle of worthy victims -- subprime-mortgage peddlers and insurance company executives.

Yes, after several years of labyrinthine, frequently convoluted background exposition, twists, turns, dubious plot devices, and enough flashbacks to make Timothy Leary cry Uncle! we learn John Kramer, the so-called Jigsaw killer of the popular horror franchise, was driven to torture, mutilate, and murder by a bad experience with an insurance company lackey who denied him cancer coverage on the basis of a -- wait for it -- preexisting condition. This may seem a hokey stab at cultural relevance to some, an after the fact argument for why we should have elected Barack Obama president in 2000 to others, but for the Pavlovian intelligencia it has signaled it is copacetic after all to pick up some of what the once-derided torture pornographers are laying down.

Over at the Huffington Post, for example, Scott Mendelson writes that although Jigsaw "never explicitly endorses a single-payer system" -- McCain-Feingold concerns maybe? -- moviegoers may nevertheless undergo the "genuinely disturbing" experience of catching themselves "actually rooting for Kramer purely because of political and moral agreement." According to Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe, "suddenly the carnage has a wicked bit of literal and metaphorical social resonance." A Daily Beast columnist approvingly labels the film "populist anti-corporate liberation propaganda," while Michael Gingold enthuses in Fangoria, "It's about time Jigsaw went after the HMOs!" The Detroit News' Adam Graham pans it even as he acknowledges the plot poses "an intriguing question: In this day and age, what's worse, a sadistic serial killer or insurance company executives?"

Why, that is a byzantine brainteaser! The film itself is a bit ambiguous on the point. Sure, William Easton, vice president of the nameless insurance corporation in question and the man who prevented Kramer's gene therapy salvation, brags to anyone who will listen about the actuarial table he devised to deny people coverage, keeps a tank of piranha in his office, calls the pack of acolytes he has endlessly searching for technicalities to screw the sick out of treatment his "dogs," swills booze in his office, and blows off his sister on her birthday, but still…the portrait is so nuanced. Better let a professional from, say, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer field that one: "Ten years from now when people look back on Saw VI," Ammon Gilbert writes, "they'll at least remember that it provided some sort of social commentary on what our country is dealing with right now, however unconventional it may be."

The problem was never with the torturer after all, it seems, but rather with the caliber of individuals being tortured, and if Saw VI proves anything it's that you can buy yourself a lot of excused collateral damage from the arbiters of cosmopolitanism pretty cheap if you adopt their phobias and prejudices.

Consider: Between the subprime mortgage brokers and the coverage deniers Jigsaw places an older male who "shows very little appreciation for the blessings of his own life" by continuing to smoke despite a family history of heart disease -- the answers to your questions are, respectively, no, not a joke and no, not Joe Camel -- placed in a contraption that crushes his chest when he cannot hold his breath for a prescribed period of time. The guy is a janitor, not a Philip Morris exec, and the whole procedure seems a bit harsh even if the FDA is now regulating tobacco, yet nary a complaint from the series' new admirers. Later in the film, Jigsaw forces Easton to choose to save either a diabetic middle-aged woman with a family or an orphaned office clerk, both hanging from barbed-wire nooses. "As you can see, the choice is not so clear when you're face to face with the people whose blood will stain your hands," Jigsaw intones, making his own point by…spilling the blood of the obviously innocent. Again, no choking on that bone from the praise chorus.

Jigsaw slaughters a few of the establishment left's hackneyed bogeymen, makes a couple scathing speeches about the "f -- cking insurance companies," damns the naïveté of the Tea Partier, government-out-of-healthcare set, and -- voila! -- the series has gone from gutter phenomenon to clever satire, Michael Moore unbound.

Hey, sometimes you have to break a few diabetics and cigarette smokers to make an utopian omelet, am I right?

This stamp of approval from on high will no doubt prove fleeting, however. If Saw XII were to depict the slaughter of federal bureaucrats running Obamacare's proposed Health Choices Administration, I doubt the filmmakers will find themselves greeted with the same degree of gleeful let's-revel-in-the-social-satire! critical panache.

IT IS SADLY IRONIC TO SEE the extensive Saw mythos reduced in a pique of headline trolling to an elaborate revenge conspiracy. Indeed, what so distinguished the initial film and sequels from most other modern horror classics was Jigsaw's detached calculation, his extreme lack of interest in revenge.

Consider: A Nightmare on Elm Street -- child molester immolated by vigilante citizens seeks supernatural vengeance in the dreams of his killers' children. Friday the 13th -- mother wages blood feud against teenagers after hormonally distracted camp counselors let her son drown…the undead, hockey mask-wearing son who thereafter periodically rises to avenge his mother. Last House on the Left -- urbane, sensitive parents go primal to avenge the rape/attempted murder of their daughter. I Spit on Your Grave -- urbane, sensitive woman goes primal to avenge own rape/attempted murder. Halloween -- misappropriated revenge, but, still, the tagline suggests motive: "The Night He Came Home."

From the beginning Saw was different. The Jigsaw of the first five films roots for his victims to survive -- even if the traps he concocts more often than not give the cheerleading a flavor of disingenuousness. A newspaper headline amongst the orienting montage of the original film blares Psychopath Teaches Sick Life Lessons, and we soon learn random drug addicts, failed suicides, adulterers, along with others whom Jigsaw has determined are in need of a moral makeover, are finding themselves captive in rooms painted with slogans such as Welcome to Your Rebirth and Cherish Your Life. There these poor souls are forced to run a gruesome gauntlet, to escape a trap designed to somehow symbolize their vice.

Jigsaw clearly prefers to think of himself as a social engineer, a sort of radical life coach, not a garden-variety murderer. "I've given you a life of purpose," he brags to a potential victim. "You're a test subject for something greater than yourself." The sentiment is not only in the character's mind. Saw creator James Wan insisted during a making-of documentary that Jigsaw just "wants to help people out," adding, "If you make it out of one of his games alive then he believes you'll be a better person."

Thus, when a Toronto Star reviewer asks, "Who'd have guessed that America's reigning fictional serial killer was a closet liberal?" one is tempted to cheekily answer, "You mean aside from anyone who saw any other Saw movie?"

SAW VI IS, THEN, A MAJOR DEVIATION -- one that, frankly, makes very little sense. Why spend several films carving up strangers when it is the insurance company flack who has really got your bloodlust boiling? And how hypocritical is it for Jigsaw to indict Easton for choosing who lives and who dies according to a "probability formula," when Jigsaw himself has established his own matrix for making the exact same determinations about others? Jigsaw wants the government to run healthcare? He doesn't even trust the government to do what's necessary to stop a janitor from smoking! (Or breathing, but…quibbles.)

The (perhaps unintentional) well from which much of the horror of the Saw series has previously been drawn -- presuming you empathize with the victims -- is the staggering amount of suffering someone who believes they are doing what's in the best interest of uncooperative others can inflict. The more Jigsaw moralizes, the wider he throws his net, greater the indictment of messianic do-gooderism grows.

Put another way, drug addiction is not a positive thing, affairs are wrong, you shouldn't try to kill yourself (unless you hate dogs), issuing bad loans is, well, bad, looking for weasel ways to legally drop insurance coverage for expensive clients in their time of greatest need is horrendous…and still the vast majority of us nevertheless agree none of these are on par with torturing people to death to help transform them into better people. Hopefully.

We've spent every Halloween for the last five years watching in graphic detail as Jigsaw attempts to mutilate the ne're out of the multitudes of ne're-do-wells of varying degrees, many of them guilty of sins and flaws no greater than those of our own or those of our loved ones, but now that he's offing the right enemies with the wrong jobs torture porn -- always unfairly maligned -- is morphing into righteous revenge fantasy.

It's cool, though. Whatever it takes to get you off.

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