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The Philosophy of John Kramer and the Saw Franchise, Part 4: Film Analysis

Ezekiel Kincaid

Oct 31, 2023

Cutting straight into the bone of the Saw franchise, John Kramer confesses his own despair and exposes himself as a radical nihilist.

We’re back, folks, with our fourth and final lesson in John Kramer’s philosophical nihilism. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey, and I hope it has at least made you think, along with challenging your perception of the Saw franchise. For today’s blue-collar philosophy lesson, we are going to look at radical nihilism and how John Kramer (Tobin Bell, of Finders Keepers) fits that rubric.


Let’s go ahead and jump in, shall we? Radical nihilism can be summed up as a “destructive” philosophy. What I mean by that is this: A radical nihilist usually has no loyalties, believes in nothing, and sees their purpose as to destroy. This is because they have a dissatisfaction that comes from their recognition that they live in a world where their ideal values will never exist. The “world as it is” is the greatest hindrance to the radical nihilist, so much so that they seek to negate and destroy its inherent moral, religious, and political values so their own can flourish.


Now, let’s apply this paradigm to John Kramer in the Saw franchise. Can his ideal of “appreciating life” exist in the world as it is? Another pertinent question we need to raise concerns Jigsaw’s aim: Is it really to change others or to change the world by destroying others? Because, as a radical nihilist, the only way to bring change is through destroying what is.


I am going to argue that John Kramer’s goal is not to incite true change in others, but to annihilate others, thus changing the world as is. A good example of this is Amanda (Shawnee Smith, of Anger Management). She is proof positive that Jigsaw cannot change people’s value system. For those of you unfamiliar with the franchise, Amanda is Kramer’s first survivor. She becomes the case study and poster girl for Jigsaw that his therapy “works.” However, as the story unfolds throughout the Saw franchise, it becomes abundantly clear she is not “cured.”

Amanda with Jigsaw, courtesy of Lionsgate

Kramer then takes it upon himself to retest Amanda. The fact he has to do this proves his methods of rehabilitation are sorely inadequate. Amanda herself even agrees with this failure and says, “Nobody is reborn.” This all takes place in Saw III (2006) and, moments later, is followed up by Jeff’s willingness to kill Jigsaw.


Speaking of Jeff (Angus Macfadyen, of Equilibrium), let’s look at him for a moment, and then we’ll jump back to the scene mentioned above. In Saw III, Kramer asks Jeff to view Danica (Debra McCabe, of People of Earth) and Timothy (Mpho Koaho, of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency) as people who made mistakes rather than people who contributed to the death of his son. Jeff ends up failing to obtain this outlook and failing to rescue them from their traps. But not to worry, Kramer, our scholar on humanity, has factored in Jeff’s failure for the overarching game.


Danica herself exposes the test’s very premise when she says, “I made a mistake … I’m human.” Jeff, too, is only human, and he will make mistakes leading to the death of others, which he does. Jeff then becomes a synecdoche for everyone involved in the game, including Jigsaw and Amanda. But it goes deeper. Jeff serves a larger purpose. He isn’t Kramer’s test subject, all of humanity is. There was never any chance Jeff’s values or perspective would change. He, like Kramer and everyone else, is flawed by belonging to the world as it is.


Let’s jump back to the scene in Saw III with Jeff, Kramer, and Amanda, where Jeff is wanting to kill Kramer. In coming face-to-face with the inadequacy of his own methods, and Jeff’s desire to kill him, Jigsaw asks Jeff, “You haven’t learned anything tonight, have you?”


Like Amanda, Jeff is being retested. And, like Amanda, Jigsaw cannot change his values.

The list goes on as we examine other movies in the Saw franchise.


Art (Louis Ferreira, of Stargate Universe) survives his mausoleum trap. Does he learn anything? Has he changed? Nope. In Saw IV (2007), he becomes the head of another game where he dies. In Saw II (2005), Eric (Donnie Wahlberg, of Blue Bloods) fails his test but not all is lost. He proves his willingness to survive and live by escaping. This should be it for Eric, shouldn't it? But it’s not. He then becomes bait in the same trap that ends up killing Art.


All in all, Amanda ends up being right when she states in Saw III, “Nobody changes.” But what about Kramer, the very one who has instituted this form of rehabilitation? A big NO on that as well. Those of you who have seen the movies, recall with me, if you will, John Kramer’s statement from Saw II where he says he is “unfixable.”


And there we have it, folks, right in front of our faces. Kramer’s own words scream at us the radical nihilist’s confession of despair. No one is fixable, so the entire damn system needs to burn. Jigsaw is sick and tired of it all. He is tired of the current world-as-it-is value system. He is sick of people not appreciating their lives because of this system. But people can’t change, not even with his method; therefore, it must all be destroyed.


Let’s go back to the original Saw (2004) for a moment. There’s a scene in there where Detective Tapp (Danny Glover, of Lethal Weapon) says to Kramer he is “sick” but he’s not referring to his cancer. Kramer’s response is telling. He states he is “sick of those who don’t appreciate their life” and he is “sick of those who scoff at the suffering of others.” And then comes the ultimate culmination and confession of Jigsaw: He says he is “sick of it all.” To put that in nihilistic terms, he is sick of the world and the current state of existence.

What about Kramer’s cancer? His physical illness? Does it play a part in this? Oh, absolutely. Jigsaw’s destructive nature displayed in his games is intricately tied to his terminal illness. Thus, the only true change Jigsaw institutes in any of his traps is devastation. The games he subjects people to are not capable of changing anyone’s values. Kramer’s aim is much more simplistic: to destroy the world as is.


In closing, I want to examine one more phrase from Kramer that highlights his radical nihilism, and it is probably one of the most important phrases in the franchise.


In Saw IV, Kramer states, “If the subject survives my method, he or she is instantly rehabilitated.” Yet, as we have seen above, this is far from the truth. As a radical nihilist, Jigsaw’s values remain intact despite evidence to the contrary, and despite the impossibility of those ideals ever becoming a reality in the world as is. This also answers the question as to why, even if people survive, Jigsaw just puts them in another game to die anyway. It is because destruction is the chief end—the obliteration of the world-as-it-is value system.


There is much more to unpack when it comes to the philosophy of John Kramer—so much more, in fact, that even passive and radical nihilism fail to cover it. This means while Kramer fits these paradigms, there are also aspects of him that do not. Those points are beyond the scope of these articles. However, seeing much of Kramer through the lens of passive and radical nihilism does shed light on his madness and gives us a background to understand some of the seeming contradictions that are evident throughout the movies.


Before I end, I want to sum up a few things.


First, radical nihilism embraces the impossibility of change. Second, when we examine passive and radical nihilism, especially in John Kramer, we see the two are intertwined. Nihilists like Kramer rely on their view of the world as it is being the non-ideal of existence. This is the only way they can understand existence. There is a deep conflict between the world-as-it-is view and the world-as-it-ought-to-be view. Jigsaw’s world view is one where he gives into destruction in order to institute change. He has wholeheartedly given himself over to the belief that people are predictable. Thus, he allows them to be human, to keep their current value system and ultimately doom themselves.


There is a deep irony existing inside John Kramer. With all of his destructive games, he still relies on the world existing as it is while also being the source of his own dissatisfaction in life. Because Kramer will never fulfill his goal of total destruction, as a nihilist, his own life will have no purpose either.

credit: Lionsgate Entertainment

And there you have it, my friends.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this little discourse into the Saw franchise, and I plan on bringing you more thought-provoking pieces in the future. Until then, stay tuned for more fantastic upcoming B-movie reviews in my current series What the Hell Did I Just Watch. Catch y’all on the flip flop. Happy Halloween, my friends.


Now go 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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