Like most reviewing Saw when it was released in October 2004, critic David Edelstein found the film so disturbing that he questioned the morality of screenwriter Leigh Whannell and director James Wan. But unlike most, Edelstein, who would later coin the term “torture porn,” still found value in the film, praising it as “an ingenious machine for inducing terror, rage, and paralyzing unease.” More importantly, he opens his review for Slate by urging readers to vote in the (then) upcoming Presidential election between incumbent George W. Bush and challenger John Kerry, offering Saw as a respite from that important work. “At least the people being tortured and/or killed on camera aren’t real Americans or Iraqis,” he writes.
By referencing the “enhanced interrogation” techniques used in the Bush administration’s War on Terror, Edelstein gestures toward what will become the defining interpretation of not only the Saw series but the entire “torture porn” genre that followed it. As critics and academics such as Aaron Michael Kerner contend, Saw and its followers tap into the discontent of a nation whose response to the wound of 9/11 was to harm others. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were Jigsaw-like moralizers, forcing victims within the U.S. and across the Middle East to either accept their philosophies or be bombed and tortured. “Torture porn” gave Americans space to wrestle with the actions of our elected officials.
Was this what Australians Wan and Whannell planned when they started working on Saw in the early 2000s? All sources point to “no.” The duo simply wanted to make a locked room thriller in the style of David Fincher. And yet, despite the creator’s meager ambitions, Saw is a political movie.