Friday, April 9, 2010

"Look at me as you kill me!"

As much criticism as horror often gets for being brainless, it's often been a good source of social commentary. Friday the 13th, et al. was a Reagan-era response to teen promiscuity. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has taken on numerous meanings in its numerous incarnations. Every George Romero film is almost dripping with the stuff. The Saw franchise is no exception.

I've already
spoken at length about the series as a whole, but one of the main plots of the most recent film brings up some very timely points. That being said I want to offer a few disclaimers in reference to the movie's other plots. Almost every Saw movie offers a great deal of retconning, which is somewhat a necessity since the series' main villain died three films ago. However the retcons offered in this film contradict previous retcons. Amanda Young is portrayed as a far better heir to Jigsaw than she was presented as in Saw III, and Hoffman far worse than he was presented in Saw V.

I had another fairly major point of contention with the new film, in that the traps/games seem to revert a bit to Saw I and Saw II in that within these traps sometimes innocent people have to die to complete the game. But this was before I watched it a second time and realized how essential this was to the story's theme.

The basic plot of the main "game" in the movie is that an executive for a health insurance company who has a number of skilled and valued employees is forced into one of Jigsaw's games. This is the man in the position to decide who keeps coverage once a catastrophic illness has taken hold in a patient. He has an entire team of skilled young employees dedicated to finding loopholes to avoid having to pay out for major expenses, and an equally skilled lawyer to protect him from lawsuits for doing just this.

John Kramer (Jigsaw) was one of the customers of this company. When he encountered this executive with the fact that he'd found an effective, though new and controversial, treatment for his type of Cancer he asked for coverage. He was flatly turned down, or as Kramer would call it "slickly" turned down. He was even turned down to the point of being told he would lose his coverage if he paid for the procedure out of his own pocket.

The executive used a formula to determine who would be covered and who wouldn't which Kramer insisted ignored the single most important factor, "the will to survive." He tried confronting this man with the fact that every day he makes decisions about who lives and who dies.

At this point, you might be tempted to view this as an anti-business screed, which to be honest, it very likely was intended as. The problem with that assessment however is, if you replace the word "executive" with "bureaucrat" would this statement apply more or less under health care reform. With care that, somewhere down the line, will have to be rationed, death panels, and an ever expanding list of restrictions both in the use of health care itself and in our private lives which seemingly have nothing to do with our health.

But back to the subject of the game. Every game in the larger "metagame" has one thing in common. For one person to live, at least one other has to die. The first trap is a sort of "breath trap." The executive is hooked up to a machine that monitors his breathing. Connected to an adjoining machine is his company's janitor. The executive is in excellent health while the janitor is a habitual smoker. They are both attached to machines which will crush their torsos just a little bit more with every breath they take, and the only way to survive the trap is for the other person to take their last breath before you do. A
sacrifice is made, the executive survives.

The executive has a set of bracelets which are rigged to explode if the tests aren't completed in a certain length of time, and each trap once completed releases a key.

Every trap from this point on places the executive in the position of making the decision he's made every day of his career with people whom he actually cares for and with full view of the consequences. His next trap is a situation where he has to chose which of his two lowest level employees dies, a secretary with health problems but a loving family, or a healthy young man with his whole life ahead of him but no one to miss him. The executive makes a decision.

He then encounters his lawyer. He has to guide her through a maze with pipes blowing blistering hot steam on her, with his only method of relieving her being to redirect the steam onto him, only to reach the end of the maze and realize that the key to her device is hidden in his body. After all the work he did trying to help her, they still fight to the death.

The final trap he encounters is his six "best and brightest" on a carousel with a gun pointed at one position. He is offered the chance to save two of the six at the price of his own pain. This trap is notable for the fact that he makes his second and last save with one person left to make the cycle. That person goes through an entire range of emotion waiting for his inevitable death making the bold statement to the executive to "Look at me as you kill me."

At this point, he's made it through all of his traps into the final one: a series of cages, one containing his wife, the second the executive, and, in the third, the wife and son of a man whom he denied coverage to with the power over his life and death.

I think this whole plot is one of the better examples of collectivism I've ever seen. If everything belongs to everyone else, one man's gain is
necessarily another man's loss. Individualism offers a type of freedom that is hard to come by: freedom from each other. Freedom to congratulate each other on good things, and not seeing every good thing that happens to another as having been taken from you. And, above all, the freedom to opt out of a flawed, corrupt system if there is nothing left to gain by staying within its confines. You don't know the meaning of "dog eat dog" until "we're all in this together."