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The Philosophy of John Kramer and the Saw Franchise, Part 3: Film Analysis

Ezekiel Kincaid

Oct 25, 2023

Cutting deeper beneath the surface to explore how the "Saw" franchise's John Kramer (Jigsaw) fits into the paradigm of passive nihilism.


Welcome back, boys and girls, to your blue-collar philosophy lesson with Zeke. I hope you’ve been enjoying this philosophical series of Saw franchise articles so far, and I also hope you’ve had some time to start watching the Saw franchise again so you can see firsthand what I am discussing in this series. In the next two articles, we are going to get into the nitty gritty of my theory. But before we do, I’d like you to know I’m not the only one who has come to this conclusion about John Kramer operating under a Nietzschean nihilist philosophy. There are others, such as Steve Jones, who goes into much more detail than I do in his book “To See the Saw Films”. Unlike Jones though, I am breaking this down to a more understandable level so even if you don’t have a background in philosophy, you can follow what I am saying.


Without further ado, let’s jump headfirst into how John Kramer fits into the paradigm of passive nihilism.


Basically, Nietzsche understands a passive nihilist to be someone who is angered by the world's attitude towards “fundamental values,” which include but are not limited to their own apathy towards existence. Or, to put it into John Kramer’s terms, they are people who “don’t appreciate their life.”


In the Saw films, Kramer is angry over his belief that the majority of people do not appreciate their own existence. To him, the ability to appreciate life is what gives life meaning and purpose. Therefore, if a person takes life for granted, they are considered by Kramer to be goalless. This means his games, traps, etc., are all a ploy (therapy maybe?) to help them realize survival is the only goal in life. Thus, enduring and surviving the game becomes their purpose for existence.


credit: Lionsgate Entertainment

Do you see how brilliant this is in the mind of Jigsaw? To him, making people play his games forces them into having endurance and survival as their present goal. It makes having purpose a present reality to them. In this way, John Kramer can solve his nihilistic crisis of living in a world where people have no purpose by forcing them into a situation where they have a purpose.


The apathy Jigsaw sees in his test subjects is evident throughout the franchise's overarching narrative. Let’s start with Saw (2004) and everyone’s favorite character, Dr. Lawrence (Cary Elwes, of The Princess Bride). If you recall from the film, his wife, Allison (Monica Potter, of Parenthood), complains that he makes a façade of being happy, but he is really miserable on the inside. In other words, Dr. Lawrence is dead on the inside and is just going through the motions of life with no passion or purpose. As Lawrence’s game unfolds, we can place it beside Amanda (Shawnee Smith, of Anger Management) and Paul’s (Mike Butters, of The Wonderland Murders) and see the comparison. Amanda seeks to escape from reality through her drug addiction, and Paul sought to escape life through his suicide attempt. Therefore, to Kramer, Dr. Lawrence's passivity to life is no better than Amanda and Paul’s escapism.


But what about Adam (Saw creator Leigh Whannel)? Did any of you out there ever catch the stark contrast between him and Kramer when it comes to cancer? No? Well, let me point it out to you: When Adam is chained up, he is having a nicotine craving—so much so, he considers smoking a cigarette that may or may not be poisoned. He says he wants “that sweet cancer. I don’t care. I really don’t.”

Do you see it yet? The irony is how passive (in the Nietzschean sense) he is about getting the very disease from which Kramer is dying. Such an attitude and statement from Adam further illuminates why Jigsaw chose him.


To further illustrate the passivity of Kramer’s victims, let’s jump ahead to Saw III (2006) and talk about Rigg (Lyriq Bent, of Long Slow Exhale) and Jeff (Angus Macfadyen, of Outlander). As a police officer, Rigg has this unwavering compulsion to save everyone. His ongoing frustration in Saw III, however, is that he can’t save everyone. Jeff’s obsession is different. He’s pissed off and angry (maybe rightfully so?) over what he deems as inadequate punishment for the man who killed his son. Though Rigg and Jeff’s compulsions/obsessions are vastly different, their view of the world is the same: Things are flawed and no matter what, they cannot change these conditions.


They are chosen to play their games because this type of attitude does not sit well with Jigsaw. According to Kramer, people do have choices and advantages, they just choose not to appropriate them. Kramer views Rigg and Jeff as pathetic, like the rest of humanity, because they view themselves as unable to change the world around them.


The victims in the Saw franchise are what we call in biblical scholarly circles a synecdoche. A synecdoche is basically a symbol or example of something that is used to represent the whole. For example, the seven churches in the apostle John’s “Book of Revelation” are not only historical churches but are also meant to represent the worldwide church of all time as a whole. This is what we have taking place in Saw.


Kramer’s victim selection is meant to represent the entire populace of humanity. From a passive nihilist perspective, disgust over this type of attitude is pretty normal. In Kramer’s view (and passive nihilism) the loss of truth, value, and meaning no longer create a crisis for humanity and they now just accept it as ordinary life. This is unacceptable for the passive nihilist, and as one, Kramer uses his traps to remedy this apathetic attitude. He wants to jolt his victims out of their apathy over life by placing them in a situation (his traps) where they will have to find value, meaning, and purpose.

There is more I could go on about, like whether Jigsaw’s methods truly match his mantra, as well as the flaws in them along with the flaws in nihilism, but that is beyond the scope of these articles. The above is suffice to prove my point that John Kramer shows evidence of being a passive nihilist. Yet there is also another side to Kramer’s nihilism that rears its head in the Saw movies: radical nihilism. And it is this radical nihilism that we will investigate in our next and final post of the series.


Until then, read some Neitchsze and watch some Saw movies!

Ezekiel Kincaid lives for horror and loves to watch it, write about, and talk about it, whether that be in his own horror novels or in reviews. His experience as a pastor and paranormal investigator brings everything he writes to life.

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