The Saw franchise has been running for almost 20 years, but what began as a lean, mean, unabashed Se7en rip-off has morphed into the kind of ugly, monotonous gore-fest that people who believe Art the Clown is the next great horror icon salivate over while the rest of us wonder where the hell it all went wrong. How did this franchise go from Cary Elwes chopping off his own foot to escape his fate to some poor woman who’s selling her body to survive doing the same thing purely to satisfy someone else’s desire for revenge? What are these movies even trying to say anymore (if anything)? Saw X, the tenth installment in the series following the badly received but serviceable Spiral, is a prequel of sorts, as well as an interquel, unnecessarily filling in the time between Saw and Saw II, which gives the filmmakers free rein to focus, once again, on John Kramer, aka Jigsaw, despite the fact he died seven movies ago.
Tobin Bell’s Kramer, now noticeably two decades older than he was in the first Saw movie, is back in the early-2000s again, facing a terminal diagnosis for brain cancer when someone he meets in a support group tells him about this exciting new treatment that could give John a new lease on life, quite literally. After minimal research into the company and its dubiously Aryan-looking founders–one of the biggest plot-holes in Saw X is that meticulous researcher Kramer doesn’t look into the people in whom he’s entrusting his own life before immediately doing exactly that while also parting with his life savings–Kramer hops on a plain to Mexico City and has the procedure done. He awakens feeling full of hope but quickly discovers it was all a ruse and calls in Shawnee Smith’s Amanda to help him enact bloody revenge on those who’ve wronged him.
First and foremost, Jigsaw has never been about revenge but rather retribution and salvation (being very generous here), so it’s curious that returning director Kevin Greutert (Saw VI, Saw 3D) and co-writers Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg (Jigsaw, Spiral) chose this route for the tenth outing. Maybe they were all out of ideas, but considering how hard this franchise has worked to make sadistic serial killer Jigsaw the real hero–and, in the case of Saw X, the story’s only true victim–it’s bizarre that the movie so explicitly positions him as being in the wrong here. It doesn’t help that Jigsaw’s targets are a bunch of down on their luck Mexicans, including a drug addict and the aforementioned sex worker, who absolutely do not deserve to be lectured and tortured by a middle-class white man (with and extra $250K at his disposal) about their bad life choices. Worse still, the traps are plainly impossible to escape from–there’s self-induced brain surgery required FFS–with one major exception early on that loses points for lack of originality, suggesting these poor people deserved what they got regardless of how hard they fought for their lives.
The optics aren’t great, to put it mildly, and at the risk of spoiling a movie with so little suspense that even active timers don’t quicken the pulse, it’s worth noting that the white characters get off comparatively easily too. Performance wise, Synnøve Macody Lund is a standout as the villainous Dr. Cecilia Pederson, an icy blonde who will quite literally tear people apart to get what she wants. For a brief moment, it appears as though Saw X is setting her up for a big showdown with Jigsaw, but poor Bell isn’t able to do much besides climb stairs these days, so we’re robbed of the opportunity for him to go tête-à-tête with his intellectual and amoral equal. Make no mistake, despite what the dull and cloyingly sentimental opening 30 minutes of this crass little film would have you believe, Kramer is not a sweet old man doodling torture devices in the park, who’s simply reached the end of his rope; he’s an evil, bloodthirsty serial killer with a god complex who doesn’t even have empathy for drug addicts, despite helping to rehabilitate one (something Amanda points out, to no avail).
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Plainly speaking, Bell is getting too old for this and although he does his best with the lazily written, bottom of the barrel script, his performance as Kramer continues to be frustratingly one-note. Essentially, Bell lowers his voice a few octaves–“Do the scary voice!” Cecilia chides him at one point–while staring intensely at whomever he’s addressing and that’s about it. Even Amanda seems tired of his antics. Smith, on the other hand, saddled with what is surely one of the worst wigs in film history, reads like a completely different character. Anyone who’s seen the later Saw movies will know she turns out to be a terrible successor for Kramer because Amanda is too unhinged to properly continue his legacy. In Saw X, she’s the reasonable one, encouraging her mentor to consider all angles before proceeding. Moreover, a third act reveal–the kind this series traffics in, and that diehard fans continue to lap up no matter how ludicrous–makes little sense both in the context of the movie itself and in the wider franchise. The final image, meanwhile, is baffling to the point of lunacy though it does fit with the film’s sickly-sweet sentimentality.
One of the biggest issues with the ongoing Saw series is the self-serious tone, which prevents these movies from being any fun at all. There’s a humorlessness to this particular franchise that makes the gorier moments feel even more mean-spirited, which isn’t helped by Jigsaw’s endless proselytizing. There are moments in Saw X that are downright laughable, but they’re played for shock value rather than comedy. For instance, Kramer doesn’t seem to question that his head hasn’t been shaved for brain surgery and there’s even a big gotcha moment when he pulls off his bandages to reveal…more hair. Did he assume they were only going to shave part of his head? Isn’t this guy supposed to be way smarter than the filthy miscreants he captures? Speaking of whom, there’s no joy in watching these people mutilate themselves before inevitably perishing because none of them deserve to be punished aside from crazy Cecilia, and it’s tough to even root against her because the performance is such a hoot–especially compared to the lecturing Kramer.
Lund is considerably more watchable than Bell and Smith, whose double act is well-honed at this stage but brings absolutely nothing new to the table. In fact, there’s no reason for this movie to exist, aside from satisfying long-time fans, who have naturally flocked to see it in their droves and praised it to the hilt. Saw X’s high Rotten Tomatoes rating has also kick-started a debate about how horror is mistreated by mainstream critics, but just because the franchise has been denigrated throughout its existence doesn’t mean these movies are any good. The same problems still exist and, in many cases, have been amped up. Those slick, irritating music video style editing tricks that seemed so fresh in 2004 are incredibly grating nowadays, while the nausea-green cinematography continues to be unavoidably ugly. Coupled with the bizarrely ill-judged attempt at sentimentality and the fact the traps themselves are dull and nonsensical, there’s really nothing to recommend this movie to anyone besides those who have already been converted by Kramer’s words and actions, who won’t need any further convincing. As for everybody else, haven’t we suffered enough?
WICKED RATING: 2/10
Director(s): Kevin Greutert
Writer(s): Pete Goldfinger, Josh Stolberg
Stars: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Synnøve Macody Lund
Release date: September 29, 2023
Run Time: 118 minutes