Saw X (2023)
Director: Kevin Greutert
Screenwriters: Peter Goldfinger, Josh Stolberg
Starring: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Synnøve Macody Lund, Steven Brand, Renata Vaca, Michael Beach, Joshua Okamoto, Octavio Hinojosa, Paulette Hernandez, Jorge Briseño
19 years ago, James Wan and Leigh Whannell burst onto the horror movie scene with Saw and introduced one of the most iconic antagonists in the modern genre, John Kramer the Jigsaw Killer. Despite being definitively killed off by the third instalment, Kramer continued to drive the franchise through extensive flashbacks and pre-recorded messages as his less principled apprentices carried on his legacy of punishing sinners by placing them in usually lethal and often ironic contraptions. Now comes Saw X, set months before Saw II, and for the first time in ten movies we see John Kramer as our main character and not just a malevolent force to overcome.
Retired civil engineer and secret serial killer John Kramer (Tobin Bell) has an inoperable brain tumour and has a prognosis of mere months. Desperate to complete his work forcing wrongdoers to reform through pain and suffering, he finds an experimental medical outfit run by Cecelia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund) working off the grid on the outskirts of Mexico City who promise to cure him through a revolutionary new treatment. But what they offer is too good to be true and John soon learns that he and many other cancer patients have been scammed; his case is still terminal. With his time ticking down, Kramer and his newly-recruited apprentice Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) track down and imprison everyone involved with Pederson’s operation in order to show them the error of their ways in a series of deadly games…
Saw X is more interesting than most of the movies in the franchise partly because there finally seems to be at least a token effort to interrogate John’s philosophy, to hold him to account and see him serve penance. It might be a stretch for most audiences to have much sympathy for a man whose actions have resulted in the grisly deaths of dozens of people, but by remaining with John and his point of view throughout the film and letting Tobin Bell’s haggard performance smooth over any gaps, you can almost see some doubts about his methodology creep in as he continues his spree. Almost.
The film dips liberally into the slasher and revenge sub-genres more than any other Saw and gives Kramer a very personal score to settle rather than his usual moral crusade against society. Having him share the same space as his victims for much of the runtime, looking them in the eye and conversing with the people who have essentially handed him another death sentence, gives proceedings the aura of a twisted therapy session, like when parents ask to meet their child’s killer.
Longtime Saw franchise editor Kevin Greutert returns for a third time to the director’s chair following Saw VI and Saw 3D, and much like in those instalments proves that nobody makes a Saw movie look as strikingly nasty as he does. The practical gore effects have never been more queasily convincing, and he and cinematographer Nick Matthews show an uncanny ability to make bland, featureless warehouses look dramatic through lighting and careful shot design.
Much like Greutert’s sixth instalment, avaricious “Big Pharma” and amoral charlatans preying on the vulnerable are the targets of Jigsaw’s unique brand of twisted justice, but there’s no question whatsoever that these are the most abhorrent group of – and we must use this term very generously – people, to ever find themselves on the wrong end of one of Kramer’s traps. Instead of our favourite designer of killing machines, this time Cecelia becomes our big bad, Synnøve Macody Lund (Headhunters) relishing the opportunity that the unique tone of the Saw franchise gives a performer, to turn on a dime from low-key intensity to high camp melodrama. Two of the franchise’s best entries (this and Saw III) have John and Amanda’s frankly depraved found family relationship at their heart and it’s great to see how effortlessly Smith slips back into the dead-eyed stare and army boots of Jigsaw’s less scrupulous and more unstable protégé.
Somewhat admirably the filmmakers have eschewed any kind of de-aging VFX on Bell and Smith, letting the skills of the franchise’s two best character actors speak for themselves, but it is occasionally distracting that both of them do look 20 years older than they should because time has passed in the real world and not the film world.
The Saw series has been pure torture porn since arguably Saw IV so we know what fans are turning out to see in any new entry. The traps in X don’t disappoint, being a mix of fiendishly simple and impossibly elaborate for two people to set up on their own, a couple making particularly stomach-churning use of high-powered vacuum hoses. One trap in particular that requires self-surgery on a particularly complex organ without anaesthetic pushes credibility too far even in a Saw movie, but gorehounds will be pleased to hear this is probably the most graphic and blood-soaked entry in the entire series.
Viewers who have never managed to get on board with what a Saw movie offers will likely absolutely hate Saw X because it offers much, much more of the same and while there are surprises, nothing comes close to the impact of the shock twists at the heart of Saw I-III. But long-time fans of the series should place it pretty highly in their personal rankings as it delves deeper than ever before into John Kramer’s contradictory, warped world view and his impending mortality. You’d be a fool for thinking this will be the last Saw film, but if it does turn out to be Kramer’s final appearance, then it gives him a sick, spectacular send-off.