Tobin Bell once noted that “I want to do anything that’s well written, that reveals something of the human condition, that provides growth for the material as well as the actors.”
He referred to it as a “great opportunity.”
After a career that had spanned three decades in theatre, television and film, the greatest opportunity presented itself when Bell was 62 years old. Little did anyone know that the veteran actor would be reborn as a horror icon on October 29, 2004.
That Bell expressed a desire for projects that were well written lends credence to the fact that the Saw franchise reaches far beyond popcorn horror into the realm of art. For some, the series is simply torture porn created for the gory enjoyment of the masochists among us, but the reality is that the franchise has always been about exploring what Bell cites as the “wants of glories” of the human condition, in addition to pushing perceived limits and the appreciation of life.
And there could not have been a better choice to navigate a saga that included cancer, the loss of a child and a marriage; and that has stretched out over seven films (with an eighth on the way) than Tobin Bell.
In an interview with MTV prior to the release of Saw III (2006), Bell revealed that after accepting a role, he asks himself a series of questions, including “Who am I? Where am I? What do I want? When do I want it? And how am I going to get it?”
Moreover, Bell wants to possess a molecular understanding of “what I mean by the things that I say.”
Beyond motivation, Bell revealed in the same interview that he creates elaborate backstories for his characters. As we get up in the morning and know every event that had happened to us until the present moment, characters in film do not have that luxury. They are simply provided a blueprint and build from there.
Few are better architects than Tobin Bell.
Consider his role as The Nordic Man in The Firm (1993), for instance. Bell acknowledged that he produced a 147-page document based on his set of questions for a supporting character that, while important to that particular story, was by no means a lead, and not remotely comparable to the magnitude of John Kramer’s Jigsaw.
A revelation that has spilled over into each character Bell has helped to create, evidenced by the time spent with Betsy Russell after she’d been cast as Kramer’s wife Jill Tuck. Bell walked and talked with Russell, bought her little gifts and even read poetry to her, all in an effort to build the sort of trust and bond that a married couple would possess.
That approach, which takes professionalism and preparation to a perfectionist’s appetite, was ideal for a character who would be exploring life lessons and symbolic retribution.
As Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) would say in Saw II (2005), “He wants us to survive this.”
Kramer was not an evil man, but one who had, as Bell said, “not been well,” who subconsciously came to the realization that his life’s work would not be about engineering, but rather tutoring a select few on gratitude toward life.
Jigsaw had not truly valued his own until confronted with the reality of it being extinguished, but after willfully plunging over a cliff only to walk away, he realized that he was stronger than he’d ever imagined. With that comprehension, he came to the conclusion that if he could have such an epiphany, it could be a shared experience.
You don’t know what you’re capable of until presented with no choice but to come out fighting. Not to be directed like so many sheep, but to actually devote thought to what you value, what you wish you’d done differently, and what you would do if given another chance.
The “innocent” victims Kramer chose for his social experiments had lost their way, and in the process, others had paid the price, or been burned for that indifference. All of which led to the exquisite appropriateness of symbolic retribution.
Jigsaw guided us as Dante, or rather Virgil, on a tour of societal indictment.
A judge who had looked the other way when a driver had killed a young child with a car, fettered by the neck to the floor of a vat that would fill with liquefied swine, left to choke on his decision, or indecision. An insurance guru who’d devised a formula that selected a healthy few for coverage while others would be damned to die because they posed a greater financial risk, led through a labyrinth where he again made decisions on who would survive and perish. This time however, they were not anonymous case numbers, but real human beings who would either endure or depart before his very eyes.
Those who played the game were carefully selected by Bell’s Jigsaw, while those spared or condemned by William (Peter Outerbridge) were chosen just as indiscriminately as cancer chooses any one of us. Just as it had chosen Kramer.
Bell’s preparation left him with a keen awareness of Kramer’s motivation for those choices and challenges, but his intensity and dramatic skill were what commanded the screen. Whether he appeared in flesh and blood or simply as a voice that narrated the scenario, Bell was not an actor simply spewing lines, but rather a man who had become the role and felt the frustration and pain, but more importantly, the hope that those he’d chosen to play a game were listening with open eyes, ears and hearts. What have you learned? Can you forgive? Can you change?
Ultimately, the intent for the character that Bell created was not for elaborate death or punishment, but for those who no longer valued existence to cherish it, and truly live for the first time.
The role of John Kramer / Jigsaw could have gone to someone simply because of name recognition or a fantastic voice, or because they could elicit dread in their messages, but instead it was given to Tobin Bell, because he is a thinking man’s actor who sees the character for the man that he is and was, with a firm grasp on his complexities and not only on what he wants for himself, but for others and from his work.
In the world of horror franchises, audiences have been given background and fleeting motivation for anti-heroes like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, but seldom are the actors who have portrayed them afforded the opportunity to explore that painful past.
Tobin Bell was given a blank canvas, and has fashioned a masterpiece, not because of traps or one-liners, but because he took the time to mold John Kramer’s humanity.
Feature image credit: 7wallpapers.net.