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SAW X Makes Us Want To Play Jigsaw’s Game Again, At Last (Review)

'SAW X' Makes Us Want To Play Jigsaw’s Game Again, At Last (Review)

Tobin Bell in Saw X
Courtesy of Lionsgate

The latest chapter in the SAW universe reinvigorates the franchise by pivoting to a character study amongst the bloody mayhem.

rachiepants

Spooky season is upon us and (bi-con) John Kramer, aka Jigsaw, is here to usher it in with gore — and heart? I mean that metaphorically, but also literally.

Ten films into the franchise, the last thing I expected to say about SAW X was that the movie feels like a fresh start, but here we are. Nearly 20 years since the first film took audiences and the box office by storm with its gritty, surprisingly restrained first entry, the series has become increasingly labyrinthian and grotesque, frequently doubling and tripling back while trying to match the impact of that first twist ending. By the time it reached the ninth entry Jigsaw it had become a gore-fueled ouroboros, and the twist ending that it was a prequel all along inspired a confused shrug, rather than the gasps of the early entries' final moments. It seemed as though perhaps the time of SAW had come to an end — or at least it needed a cooling-off period.

Taking a break to reset was a bet that thankfully paid off and the result is a film that, while in keeping with many of the hallmarks that made the franchise a horror fan and gorehound’s delight, smartly decided to also maximize its other iconic feature: John Kramer. SAW X is more thoughtfully paced, rooted in character, and not so wrapped up in its need to catch its audience off guard that it abandons logic. It is without question the best SAW film in nearly a decade.

Courtesy of Lionsgate

Spoilers for previous SAW films follow.

As long-time SAW fans know both Kramer and his assistant Amanda did not survive the initial trilogy of films, which created a problem for subsequent installments that were forced to resort to flashbacks (some hilariously memed) and timeline meddling to shoehorn him back in. SAW X sidesteps this problem entirely by simply squeezing this film in between the events of the original and SAW II. Not only does this allow us to reset the clock on that pesky impending death, but it gives the filmmakers a chance to slice a bit deeper into the man behind the traps — not to mention one of the most fascinating and gruesome cases of fictional Stockholm Syndrome put to film, by which we mean his mentor/acolyte relationship with Amanda.

This film sees Kramer, who has been diagnosed with an inoperable frontal lobe tumor, struggling to come to terms with his mortality. Sick and desperate for a solution and for hope, he travels to Mexico to pursue a miracle cure from a physician named Celia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund) whose “Pederson Method” is so advanced and controversial they can only be done off the books, in seclusion — for cash. You can bet where this goes next. Crushed by the con and loss of hope, Kramer embarks on a mission for justice — and, in his mind, a chance for redemption, but the kind that only comes with true, visceral sacrifice.

Courtesy of Lionsgate

Tobin Bell, who has always brought gravitas and quiet menace to the role of Kramer, even when the films themselves couldn’t match him, finally gets his due here. There is a deep melancholy in the man that matches his determination to carry out his (admittedly very sick) form of justice. Shawnee Smith also makes a welcome return to the screen. While still an enigma, she exudes both a sense of sorrow and unflinching resolve that makes her feel both dangerous and human.

Courtesy of Lionsgate

One of the criticisms often leveled at the later chapters of the franchise calls out Kramer’s flimsy motivations. This person dated bad men, that one dated *gasp* two men, and into the woodchipper they go. But here, perhaps truly for the first time, we see and understand not only the why but the why of what John is doing, making him a more sympathetic and believable avatar of justice than he has ever presented before.

This duality has always been a sticking point for critics of a character who can easily be seen through the lens of your standard (if more brutally violent) man driven by grievance. Is he the wronged Kramer? Is he the disgruntled and monstrous Jigsaw? Is he the anti-hero, or the villain? Both writers Josh Solberg and Pete Goldfinger, as well as director Kevin Greutert, put their finger on the scale in SAW X, giving him a kind of hero’s journey, helping mightily by also giving him his best foil yet in the form of the truly sociopathic and craven Dr. Pederson.

Courtesy of Lionsgate

A third-act twist (one of many) goes all-in on Kramer’s heroism and strays into being a bit too on the nose, sacrificing moral ambiguity and undercutting the nuance that the film had been effectively laying out. However, before I had hardly any time to struggle with it, the iconic SAW theme needle dropped and wiped it all away as the final resolution unfolded and all was revealed. It’s a classic SAW moment that felt oddly reinvigorating and hit a little differently after being acquainted with John and Amanda. Without spoiling anything it is fair to say this won’t be the last time we visit Kramer’s macabre world — and not just because it takes place chronologically before nine more films (and a spinoff), but because the film ends on a foreboding and open note — and I’m glad.

SAW X truly does feel like a fresh start. It resets the playing board and sets a path forward for a deeper study of its iconic characters while introducing new obstacles for Kramer to slash, dash, and grind out of his way. All the elements fans know and love are back, but so too are the restraint and intelligence that made the first film so beloved. SAW is back, so gays, get to the theater this weekend and kick off spooky season in some eye-popping, head-drilling, limb-sawing style. It’s a bloody good time.

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Rachel Shatto

EIC of PRIDE.com

Rachel Shatto, Editor in Chief of PRIDE.com, is an SF Bay Area-based writer, podcaster, and former editor of Curve magazine, where she honed her passion for writing about social justice and sex (and their frequent intersection). Her work has appeared on Elite Daily, Tecca, and Joystiq, and she podcasts regularly about horror on the Zombie Grrlz Horror Podcast Network. She can’t live without cats, vintage style, video games, drag queens, or the Oxford comma.

Rachel Shatto, Editor in Chief of PRIDE.com, is an SF Bay Area-based writer, podcaster, and former editor of Curve magazine, where she honed her passion for writing about social justice and sex (and their frequent intersection). Her work has appeared on Elite Daily, Tecca, and Joystiq, and she podcasts regularly about horror on the Zombie Grrlz Horror Podcast Network. She can’t live without cats, vintage style, video games, drag queens, or the Oxford comma.