2023, R, 118 min. Directed by Kevin Greutert. Starring Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Michael Beach, Synnøve Macody Lund, Steven Brand.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Oct. 6, 2023
Remember in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, when the producers realized that killing off their signature killer two films ago was a terrible idea and they needed to bring him back ASAP? Well, 17 years and six sequels later, the Saw movies have finally worked out how to revive the series' most recognizable human character (as distinct from Billy the Puppet). The problem was that the Jigsaw Killer aka John Kramer (Bell) was sidelined by his death in Saw III. However, unlike the venerable but even more erratic adventures of Jason Voorhees, dead has to mean dead for Jigsaw. No zombiefication and no flashback sequences – well, unless you classify the entire movie as a flashback, as Saw X takes place between 2004's original giallo-tinged Saw and the more gory 2005 sequel, Saw II.
The ingenuity of the Saw movies is that Kramer is the most unlikely slasher, even less of an obvious physical menace than the gangling Freddy Krueger. An aging cancer patient, he's no Victor Crowley, no bulldozer of chaos, and ultimately his murders are cerebral: Moreover, they're arguably self-inflicted, as his games always have a way to win (grisly as they may be). This time, the sympathy for a killer is ramped up as Kramer faces his cancer diagnosis and grabs desperately at one last life raft of hope: an experimental therapy.
So he heads off to Hollywood's version of Mexico, the only place with more yellow filtering than the average Saw movie, where he is convinced by a caring physician (Lund) that healing is just a surgery and a drug cocktail away.
Superficially, it's a return to the pointed political message of Saw VI, in which the pharma-insurance complex was the real villain: But making untrustworthy foreign hospitals the villain may cause as much cringing as the horrors John and also-not-dead-yet sidekick Amanda (Smith) inflict on the medical team when their treatment is revealed to be less than efficacious.
All the Saw signatures are there: a surprisingly tricky timeline, the open-ended narrative, the accelerated judder shots, tortures that put the American Guinea Pig films to shame, a ghastly color palette, and Charlie Clouser's deliciously atonal score. After the gimmicky Saw 3D: The Final Chapter, the clunky semi-reboot of Jigsaw, and the misguided Spiral: From the Book of Saw, Saw X feels like a welcome return to form.
But this isn't just a rehash. Kramer's flawed and very Catholic "redemption through contrition and self-flagellation" philosophy finally has to confront the blunt reality: Just because a rat will chew off its leg to escape a trap, it doesn't mean they've been redeemed. Survival instincts mean that, one day, Kramer will face a survivor that isn't an acolyte but an apostate. So for all Saw X's "return to its roots" claims (which, let's face it, they've all made), its future may be in finally dealing with that logical consequence. That perennial problem of having a sadist with a messiah complex as protagonist is solved by finally adding an antagonist who likes to play as rough as he does.
But that shift in predator-prey relationship alters the dynamic of the series and our emotional engagement with the characters. The Saw franchise relies on our pleasure in terrible things happening to awful people, but there's a disconnect when the sin does not justify the punishment. By giving Bell more screen time than ever as Kramer, the franchise finally makes him a rounded character with an actual inner life, rather than a figure of fear and veneration who helps move the plot along. Maybe, in finally giving Jigsaw a Daffy Duck to his Bugs Bunny, the series has worked out how to move into its third decade.