When someone asks John Kramer (Tobin Bell), aka Jigsaw, what he does for a living in Saw X, he says he’s a sort of a life coach. And indeed, the latest installment of the nearly twenty year old franchise turns Kramer’s twisted, Old Testament logic on its head, focusing our attention on the man himself as he faces his impending demise. The brain cancer that has been killing John since the franchise began–– did kill him, actually, but hasn’t yet since this film is set prior to Saw II––  has grown, leaving him with months to live, and his doctor encourages him to retire from (ahem) whatever it is he does and get his affairs in order. 

Playing Doctor

This sly, playful entry into the Book of Saw is a slow burn, luxuriating in the silly, surreal, amusingly earnest story of John Kramer’s mortality before getting down to business. For half an hour, John goes to a support group; he writes a will; he wistfully sits in the park, drawing Saw traps he may never have time to make (and envisions using them to keep things exciting for the more impatiently bloodthirsty theatergoers). This section alone is about as long as the typical setup for a Saw film before the gorefest begins, so it comes as a surprise when another terminally ill member of his therapy group, now seemingly in remission comes across him at a cafe, and John eagerly asks him about his miraculous recovery. He tells John about a secret, vigilante group of doctors who offer a novel form of treatment Big Pharma wants kept under wraps to protect their margins. Kramer reaches out and soon, he’s off to Mexico, where he’s introduced to the ragtag medical team and, after surgery, told that he’s made a full recovery.

source: Lionsgate Films

Full of deliberately stilted optimism and benevolence (and tinted orange because it’s set in Mexico), these passages might be grating to viewers who can’t find sentiment, or at least snicker, at lines like “the sun is rising on your new life, John.” And yet (spoilers for those of you like myself who missed the trailer) all is not as it seems with these medical Robin Hoods: Kramer, upon returning to their secret lab with a bottle of thank-you tequila, discovers they’ve fled. He removes his bandages and finds that he was never operated on at all, launching a far more personal game than usual and, eventually, putting the Saw-trap on the other foot.

source: Lionsgate Films

This deeply satisfying twist, and the ensuing game of cat-and-mouse with the villains who fleeced him, sets into motion a thoroughly satisfying yarn in a familiar register for the series. This film’s traps are clever and well-considered, and it avoids some of the cumbersome narrative morass with which other entries are burdened–– the series’ savage “eye for an eye” logic is most enjoyable when the punishment actually befits the transgression, and with one big twist out of the way early, the filmmakers are able to deliver gross-out with clarity and panache. Bell‘s performance as the long-suffering, perversely beneficent Kramer is also magnetic, playing well off of Synnøve Macody Lund‘s haughty Eurovillain con-artist, Dr. Cecilia Pederson. Shawnee Smith‘s Amanda, though a welcome presence here, is unfortunately given less to do. Still, the pair’s physical presence as witnesses during the scenes of torture adds dimension to the familiar logic of the franchise, adding a new layer of emotional complexity to Saw’s baroque morality play. The gore, of course, is plentiful, both playing the hits (yes, there’s a saw) and finding new tricks (and organs) to play with. 


Once the blood begins to flow, Saw X tears ahead with brutal, surgical precision and typically excellent practical effects. Its streamlined approach to its material is a welcome breath of fresh air to an occasionally stale premise, and with Kramer injecting narrative pathos into the proceedings, Saw X brings fresh, beating, squirming heart to the Saw franchise.

Saw X was released in theaters on September 29, 2023!

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