Tobin Bell - John Kramer/Jigsaw
Shawnee Smith - Amanda Young
Synnøve Macody Lund - Cecilia Pederson
Steven Brand - Parker Smith
Renata Vaca - Gabriella
Joshua Okamoto - Diego
Octavio Hinojosa - Mateo
Genre - Horror/Thriller
Running Time - 118 Minutes
Between the events of SAW and SAW II, a sick and desperate John Kramer travels to Mexico for a risky and experimental medical procedure in hopes of a miracle cure for his cancer, only to discover the entire operation is a scam to defraud the most vulnerable. Armed with a newfound purpose, the infamous serial killer returns to his work, turning the tables on the con artists in his signature visceral way through devious, deranged, and ingenious traps.
As I had mentioned in my previous review for 2021’s SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW, the hype train for this year’s SAW X made me eager to watch the newest installment considering the last few were either mid [JIGSAW] or pretty awful [SAW 3D, SPIRAL]. While the trailers made the film look like “been there, done that”, the Rotten Tomatoes score and even the positive word-of-mouth made me curious as to why this film was getting so highly praised when some of my other favorites in the series weren’t really. What’s so special about the tenth installment of a divisive horror franchise that has both critics and fans being so positive on it?
While I didn’t feel we actually needed another SAW film, I was anticipating it somewhat for a few reasons. The biggest reason was the returns of both Tobin Bell and Shawnee Smith to the franchise, as SPIRAL proved that a SAW film without Tobin Bell’s presence doesn’t really work in the story’s favor. The film also saw the return of director-editor Kevin Greutert - the man who directed one of the best SAW films [SAW VI] and the worst one in the franchise [SAW 3D]. Also, the film would be a direct sequel of the first SAW, while being a prequel for SAW II, which I found intriguing. But having a film in-between two of the best films in the series upped its potential. I mean, this new film had to be better than the last few, right? What I didn’t expect was how much better it was than the last few. In fact, I think SAW X is the best film since the first film and proves that there is still a lot of life in this series.
I think what makes SAW X a huge success is having Tobin Bell back as John “Jigsaw” Kramer. SAW X belongs to him, as he carries the film successfully to the finish line with a performance that exceeds anything he had done previously in the franchise. Bell is helped by a really good screenplay, for once, that allows him to really dig deep into his character and flesh him out in ways that he wasn’t allowed to before. Honestly, the first act of SAW X plays out as a character study or drama that highlights John Kramer’s struggles with brain cancer, hoping for some kind of cure while, at the same time, he attempts to do the same for others with his “games”. He goes to meetings for those suffering with cancer. He’s heartbroken when doctors tell him that his cancer is terminal and he should be preparing for his last few months of life. And when someone from his meetings tells him of this procedure that could cure him of his cancer with experimental drugs that the FDA won’t approve of, we watch Kramer become hopeful as he’s less focused on “saving others” and more focused on saving himself and living his best life. Unfortunately, this is a SAW movie and we learn that this miracle cure is nothing but a scam to steal thousands of dollars from his account. This only makes Kramer a vengeful man who is here to teach those who gave him false hope a taste of their own medicine.
While there have been moments in the franchise that have tried to make John Kramer more of a sympathetic figure, especially when it concerned his wife Jill and the lost of their child, SAW X is really the first time where the filmmakers want the audience to be on Jigsaw’s side without any semblance of doubt. Kramer is fleshed out here as a human being who has been wronged by very evil people who used his illness to make themselves a bit richer without caring about conning a dying man. Each one of the participants rightfully deserves to be punished by making a choice, always keeping us on Kramer’s side when he puts them through some gruesome traps. He’s the ultimate anti-hero this time around, making us understand his motives and justification for his actions without questioning them. He’s not just a villain with a bunch of catchphrases, or a specter of the past who appears in flashbacks to move the plot along. Jigsaw is the main character here and SAW X lets us in on the man behind all the mean-spirited games in a well told way. It’s actually pretty refreshing because it lets Tobin Bell finally use his acting chops to create a more compelling character the audience hadn’t been privy to before. He’s incredible here and it’s definitely his best performance within the franchise.
I also appreciated the return of Amanda Young, who is without question the best Jigsaw apprentice in the entire franchise. While I still feel Shawnee Smith’s best acting role was in 2006’s SAW III, where she really got to play with Amanda’s mental state and resentment over how Jigsaw treated her, I do think Smith does get some nice emotional beats in SAW X as well. Amanda is a bit more playful and sarcastic in this film, while maintaining her grief over Kramer’s condition and not wanting to continue his mission without him. Bell and Smith share some nice private moments together and display their usually great chemistry as they just talk as mentor and student, with both actors bringing a lot of gravitas and conviction with their respective characters. We get a deeper understanding of their relationship and how important each one is to the other, like a father wanting to pass on his work to his daughter, who has no idea how to move on without him. Smith also gives Amanda a bit of a conscience that we’ve never seen before, as one of the participants is a former drug addict and Amanda feels a bit conflicted about punishing her. It causes a bit of strife between her and Kramer, which seems to explain their interactions in SAW III, where the two felt at odds at times due to Kramer’s deteriorating condition in that film. I thought both Bell and Smith elevated this film a lot.
The other characters might not get as much depth, but they are given enough of a background story to understand where they come from and their reasons for being a part of this evil scheme. Some are downright cold and don’t care about what they’ve done. Others display more guilt and try to plead with both Kramer and Amanda to give them a second chance to make things right. The actors all play their roles well. But in particular, Synnøve Macody Lund as Dr. Cecilia Pederson and Renata Vaca as drug addict Gabriella are the standouts and really make us either hate their characters or see how desperate they were to the point where we kind of feel bad for them, but not really at the same time. Lund is really fantastic as the film’s main villain, as she evolves her character with her fantastic performance. I’ve never watched a character in this film who deserved to play one of Jigsaw’s games more than Dr. Pederson did.
As for the traps, I don’t think they’re the most memorable or fleshiest traps in the franchise. But man, it’s been a long while where I’ve watched a SAW film and actually cringe and felt uncomfortable at times. If you enjoy eyeball violence, limbs getting amputated, self-imposed brain surgery and a see-saw involving drowning, you’ll get a kick out of SAW X. The final act, in particular, is pretty damn great with one trap leading right into the twist trap at the end. I thought it was all really clever and satisfying as a viewer. The audience in the theater I was in pretty much clapped and hollered during the last ten to fifteen minutes. One of the best scripts in the entire series for sure.
Kevin Greutert probably directed his best SAW feature with this movie as well. It has some of the trademarks you’d expect. Flashing images and editing during the traps. Some of the typical SAW filters we’ve been accustomed to. And a showcase of violence that Greutert has no issue displaying for us to see, making us all glad we didn’t piss off Jigsaw. But I gotta say - I thought for a SAW movie, Greutert showed a lot of restraint visually, allowing the story and the actors to be more of a focus than the horror itself. The first half of the film feels more like a drama rather than horror movie, with no distracting editing or annoying flashbacks that distract from the main story. Greutert lets things breathe, allowing Tobin Bell and the other actors to do their thing before leading us into the second, and more traditional, half that we’ve come to expect with a SAW film. The difference in quality between SAW 3D and SAW X is staggering. You’d think each film was from a different director and not the same person. If they ever do another SAW film for whatever reason, I think Greutert needs to stay on because he did a wonderful job on this.
Were there issues? As with every SAW sequel, there are always plot-holes and things that happen that make you question how or why they do. Some of the minor characters could have been more fleshed for their arcs to have a bigger impact. And honestly, seeing both Tobin Bell and Shawnee Smith look much older while playing characters from almost twenty years ago was very jarring at first, but you don’t really notice it much once things start to kick into high gear. Bell, in particular, is playing a character who is dying anyway. So looking older actually works and I think deaging them with CGI would have made things look weird anyway. I did have a major gripe with Shawnee Smith’s wig. That looked really bad and it was a distraction whenever she was on. It was a choice, that’s for sure.
THE FINAL HOWL
In one of the biggest movie surprises of the year, SAW X destroyed all expectations I had for it. Tobin Bell carries the film wonderfully from beginning to end, finally allowed to really use his acting chops to flesh out a villain and turn him into a sympathetic anti-hero who is completely justified for his actions. Shawnee Smith also brings the goods, making Amanda more human, while Synnøve Macody Lund is solid as the film’s true villain with her character’s evolution. SAW X also contains an actual narrative that allows characters to have depth, taking time with the situations presented and allowing the audience to invest themselves into the story regardless if they have prior history with the franchise or not. I also appreciated Kevin Greutert redeeming himself from the terrible SAW 3D with a subtle visual presentation that maintains some of the SAW trademarks [flashy editing, that SAW filter] but proving less is more as he directs more of a drama feel with the film’s first half before going into the typical SAW horror scenario in the second. This felt less like a chapter within a universe and more of an actual movie that’s trying to be its own thing and actually achieve a level of quality this franchise hasn’t seen in quite a while. I was really impressed that a tenth film in a horror franchise could be so damn good, that it pretty much trumps anything that came after the first film. I’m hoping this is the last SAW film, so the series can go out on a high note. But money talks, so…
(9 out of 10)