“How can you walk through life pretending that you’re happy?” That is the question that apparently only a serial killer can help you answer. Such is the premise of the movie Saw. Saw is either a cynical look at a moral(less) universe or a cynical look at a moral(less) God. The movie sets itself up as Seven meets Phone Booth, being about judgment, atonement, and redemption.

Click to enlarge The Jigsaw Killer, as the serial killer is known, sets himself up as God in this universe, and people are expected to play by his rules. He is the ultimate judge. The motivation given to the serial killer is that he is dying, which has given him a unique perspective and appreciation for life. The ultimate sin, in his universe, is to squander the gift of your life. He goes about, sitting in judgment of others, until he finds subjects guilty of wasting their lives. He then puts them in elaborate scenarios, forcing them to reflect on their lives and the gift they’ve been given, and then he makes them pay for their sin. The one victim to have escaped goes as far as to say “He helped me.”

Click to enlargeThe atonement takes the form of the victim being punished for his sin by, in one way or another, mirroring that sin. Free will is reduced to two choices, a series of either-ors: do something horrible to someone else or let something horrible happen to you. There is no morally good option (unless you count self-mutilation) only the lesser of two evils. I won’t be more specific with the choices –believe me, you don’t want to hear their grisly choices– other than to say that Dr. Gordon has to do something drastic or else his wife and child will be killed. And that the movie is titled Saw for a reason. If you don’t play by the “rules,” you are punished, then forced back into the game. In this mad display of twisted morality, the victims have to make atonement -to cover over, often with the blood of a sacrifice- their sin. The sin, or role to play in order to escape, isn’t as clear for Adam (the other man in the scenario), though he seems to be guilty of smoking.

“How did I get here? I had everything in perfect order,” Dr. Gordon says, echoing the sentiment we have when we find ourselves at the end of our downward spiral into sin. His series of compromises started with innocent flirtation and ended with him in a seedy hotel with a woman other than his wife. In a lot of ways, the movie both wants to be the movie Seven but also throw you off by not being the movie Seven. The Jigsaw killer seems to be preaching a message of being grateful for the life that you have, and his schemes play out like an extreme version of scared straight. Only in the realization of gratitude does one find redemption.

Click to enlargeThe movie doesn’t quite work. First off, you don’t really come to care about the characters; in fact, the more they try to characterize them, the less you like them. Second, the movie suffers from what I call “the curse of the red herring,” by which I mean that it doesn’t play fair. There are point-of-view tricks (who’s doing the watching?) that make for holes in logic. The director’s decision to employ speeded up and shaken camera sequences distracted rather than added to the atmosphere, and especially didn’t work during the climax. And because we live in the age of the trick ending, writers and directors go for ever more implausible endings in order to attain the twist. The movie is a series of narrative tricks –over plot and characterization– that leaves you feeling toyed with and cheated.

Like a flawed version of Seven, this movie is an examination of using immoral means to a moral end. Those drawn in by the advertising poster may be a little disappointed, but it does have some effectively creepy moments to it.