There are those who would have one believe that the Saw films are torture porn, nothing more than fodder for the enjoyment of the sadists among us. Those who follow and love the franchise, however, know differently. The ultimate message of the Saw series is about discovering an appreciation for life in the face of death, and the heights human beings can attain to not only survive, but cherish their existence.
No one was tested more or played the game better than Amanda Young, portrayed to exquisite perfection by Shawnee Smith.
With roles in The Stand (1994) and The Blob (1988), horror fans were familiar with Smith, but it wasn’t until she escaped the clutches of a reverse bear trap secured around her skull in the original Saw (2004) that they began to fully appreciate her brilliance as an actress.
The character of Amanda was broken and damaged, a drug addict and a cutter, who wore her emotions on her sleeve. The Saw saga laid bare many souls, but none more than Young. Over the course of several chapters, no inhabitant of Jigsaw’s universe, not even John Kramer (Tobin Bell), revealed more about who they were than Amanda, and those peeks behind the curtain allowed Smith to mesmerize with her interpretation of a complex and conflicted soul.
While she survived her first test, Amanda was tasked with convincing a new group of contestants to work together with a simple message in the second installment: “He’s testing us. He wants us to survive this, but you have to play by the fucking rules!”
As Kramer himself would point out in Saw III (2006), however, following the rules were a challenge for Amanda, because her emotions were her weakness.
Though Amanda gave herself over to Kramer, as he’d requested, she could not shake the emotional toll of her previous life. Someone who had turned to narcotics to cope in the past was now the trusted right hand of a brilliant tactician who wanted nothing more than to elevate the plain of awareness of those who did not appreciate their lives. Amanda rounded up the likes of Adam (Leigh Whannell), Daniel Matthews (Erik Knudsen) and Dr. Denlon (Bahar Soomekh), but struggled with what they had to face, which countered Amanda’s embrace of her new found life, one completely devoted to her father figure, Kramer.
Though she exhibited a hardened exterior to get Dr. Denlon to ease Kramer’s suffering in his final stages of terminal cancer, she became a deer in headlights when he seized, unable to process the realities of his impending demise. Amanda was not only losing someone who had become her mentor, but her way of life. And when Kramer had visions of his wife while being worked on, mistaking Denlon for his better half, it was more than Amanda could bear.
Amanda felt that all she had done for Kramer was for naught, immediately confronted with feelings that she was all too familiar with – being used, unloved and unappreciated — her instinct was to run back to the comfort and oblivion of drugs. Unable to deal with the emotions flooding over here, Amanda chose to run a blade across her thigh instead, because bandages were a far easier solution than sifting through the thought and sorrow of intellectual drowning.
She may have implored the players from Saw II (2005) to follow the rules, but she herself was incapable. She didn’t let Adam suffer the natural death the game had intended, nor did she walk away from Detective Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) when he emerged from the bowels of Jigsaw’s lair with attacks and taunts. To say nothing of her traps that were virtually inescapable, or her reluctance to let Dr. Denlon go free after her husband had completed his trek and she’d fulfilled the duties for which she’d been charged.
Of course, time would reveal that Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) had provided Amanda with a letter that presented her with an unenviable task — choosing the manner with which she would betray Kramer – by either killing Dr. Denlon (which violated the rules of the game), or revealing that she’d been involved with the clinic robbery that led to his wife Jill’s (Betsy Russell) miscarriage.
Smith played wounded rage with torment and seething authenticity. Amanda felt that breaking the rules by killing the doctor may have been forgivable, as Jigsaw had forgiven her past mistakes, whereas the death of his unborn child would certainly end their relationship altogether, leaving her to once again tread water in a chaotic ocean all alone.
What’s more, to Amanda’s thinking, she had followed the rules, done everything that had been asked of her, only to believe that she was nothing more than a pawn in Jigsaw’s game, and everything that he’d taught her and the progress she’d made was for nothing, a lie.
Of course, those sentiments could not have been further from the truth. Kramer had wanted to test Amanda, to show her that her emotions could be checked and the rules followed, even if that meant the game didn’t play out as she had expected or even hoped.
At her core, however, Amanda was a fighter. She had to fight to survive her entire life, to fend off those who came at her from all sides, to defend herself from the derogatory names and advances that crashed down upon her in wave after wave. Try as she might, though, she could not allow those who had slighted her to walk away unscathed.
Just as she’d spit in the face of Detective Matthews as he beat her head against a concrete wall, she spit in the face of Kramer by betraying the guidelines that he had set forth. Many an individual fell prey to Jigsaw’s traps because they were unable to calm their minds and listen to his words, and Amanda was no different.
Final girls are celebrated for their bravery and ability to overcome impossible odds, but make no mistake, Amanda is a heroine of horror, perhaps the realest of all. There was nothing exceptional about her, she was simply a flawed human being who found herself in an extraordinary situation, consumed not by the game, but her own demons. In the end, that’s what gets us all. Not the obstacles in our lives, but our perceptions of them.
The next time someone posits that Saw is nothing more than torture porn, or that horror only features one-dimensional characters in simplistic stories, point them in the direction of Shawnee Smith’s performances from the world of Jigsaw. If those detractors are honest with you, and themselves, they’ll recognize true brilliance when they see it.
To which you can reply, “Game over.”
Feature image: fanpop.com.