Kevin Greutert’s Saw X returns the series to top form, refining one of cinema’s messiest formulas, partly thanks to a tremendous performance from Tobin Bell.
The road to Saw X (2023) has been an incredibly fascinating one. It’s been almost 13 years since we were graced with Saw 3D (2010), which featured the retrospectively hilarious subtitle of “The Final Chapter”. In the world of Hollywood, the word “final” means absolutely nothing, and this was proven true 7 years later with Jigsaw (2017), a pseudo-reboot of the franchise that, in a desperate attempt to modernise it, robbed it of its signature style. This was then followed up by the absolutely bizarre spin-off film, Spiral: From the Book of Saw (2021), which reportedly came about at a wedding in Brazil, where an excited Chris Rock approached Lionsgate to pitch his horror-comedy take on the classic series, resulting in a film that was unfortunately neither particularly scary or particularly funny.
It only makes sense then, after the disappointment of Spiral, that Saw would be taken back to the drawing board in an attempt to get to the bottom of why its latest releases have struggled to capture the magic of a franchise often labelled as nothing more than “torture porn”. It’s quite funny, then, that the idea they eventually settled on for reinvigorating the series was to simply make an entry set between Saw (2004) and Saw II (2005), trying to capture people’s nostalgia in the most direct way possible. John Kramer (Tobin Bell) is the undisputed star of the show, with Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) rightfully returning as his loyal assistant. A more cynical man might argue that this is a prime example of just how desperate studios can get, but luckily, in Saw X’s case, the quality of the film more than makes up for any theories I might have regarding the studio’s intentions.
Easily the smartest choice Saw X makes is discarding all of the excess that normally plagues these films. For whatever reason, so many of the past sequels have been obsessed with stuffing in as many plotlines as they can get away with, nearly always revolving around a detective trying to get the bottom of just exactly who this Jigsaw killer is. I get that it’s partly an attempt to help the pacing of these films and ensure that they’re not just a non-stop rollercoaster ride of the most gruesome traps the human mind can conjure, but at the end of the day, this is a Saw film. I’m here for the traps, not to watch a bunch of detectives I know are going to die anyway try and solve a mystery I already have all the answers to.
So smartly, none of that is present here. Instead, we get a relatively simplistic story revolving around John Kramer travelling to Mexico for an experimental cancer treatment, which he soon discovers is a scam. In typical Kramer fashion, he reacts in the only way he knows, by strapping them all up to complex machinery and forcing them to partake in twisted games to ensure their survival. It’s a surprisingly novel concept for these films to actually feature genuinely horrific people at the centre of their traps; by the later Saw sequels, we were starting to get victims whose crime was “being on the receiving end of domestic abuse and just not saying anything sooner”.
For a film that positions Kramer as its protagonist though, it obviously requires the “victims” to essentially be comic-book supervillains, a sentiment that Synnøve Macody Lund takes to heart in her brilliantly maniacal performance as the head doctor, Dr. Cecilia Pederson. No other Saw film has ever gotten close to just how emotionally charged this one feels, with the whole dynamic of this essentially being Kramer’s revenge being an incredibly interesting one for the franchise to take on in its tenth instalment. We get to see a very human side to this psychopathic character, and it plays a massive part in why the central game works as well as it does.
Now, with that being said, I do harbour some resentments towards Saw X’s length. It clocks in at just under 2 hours, making it by a mile the longest entry in the series, and honestly, I can’t quite figure out why. For a film so dedicated to refining and improving upon the previously established formula, the consistent 90 minute runtimes just didn’t feel like something that needed messing with. What we end up with is a first act that unfortunately drags, seemingly taking an eternity to actually kick-start the Jigsaw part of the story. Though once we get there, the pacing still feels off, with there being a multitude of somewhat repetitive scenes and exchanges, often slowing things right down to an often tedious speed.
On top of that, I must admit to being somewhat disappointed by its ending. Again, the whole thesis of this film seems to be to refine and improve, so I can understand why it felt like it needed to include a major plot-twist, set to the same, booming music as always, but this reveal in particular? It didn’t do anything for me. Unfortunately, I just don’t think this story lends itself to a twist as big as you normally see in these films, where typically, the last 5 minutes of any given Saw instalment is guaranteed to completely shatter any preconceived notions you had about the incredibly fragile timeline. Here though, it’s just a bit too contrived and forced, feeling more obligatory than anything.
If you’re a fan of the Saw films though, Saw X absolutely delivers. So much of what Saw does well is present here, with it featuring several of the franchise’s best traps alongside a series best performance from Tobin Bell. In my eyes, it’s potentially the best Saw film since the very first one, fixing a formula that for years felt broken beyond repair. Yes, I wish it was a bit leaner, but if this is what the future of the franchise looks like, well, I might actually be excited to see one of these again.