John Kramer takes a break from designing gouge-crush-grind-inators to muse on his life’s work. Drenched in golden sunlight, he smiles and mutters fondly “I have a few hobbies.” The dramatic irony here is about as subtle as Saw X gets, with the franchise’s tenth instalment delivering its signature bone-snapping, flesh-ripping thrills in heavy-handed abundance.
Despite the usual bloody business, Saw X boasts two shiny new toys: 1) a kick-ass Roman numeral and 2) an emotionally elevated story that packs a heavy philosophical punch. Saw X isn’t subtle, but it never claims to be, and the fleshy bedlam that ensues provokes as much thought as it does vomit.
For those of you who don’t watch Saw timeline videos on YouTube in your free time, Saw X is technically Saw I.5, taking place inbetween Saw (2004) and Saw II (2005). This allows Tobin Bell as John ‘Jigsaw’ Kramer, joined by fan-favourite victim-turned-devoted apprentice Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) to return after both characters were killed off in Saw III (2006).
Facing a terminal cancer diagnosis, Kramer seeks out a “miracle cure” operating in Mexico. He dishes out $250K to his supposed saviours and momentarily believes that he is cured, only to discover that the entire procedure was a scam designed to drain the dying of their savings. The unwitting scammers, led by Dr Cecilia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund), become the victims of a new generation of death traps in a revenge flick gone rogue.
Technically, the film marks an exciting new direction for the franchise. There’s no stomach-churning cold open. Instead, director Kevin Greutert explores Kramer’s everyman beginnings with humble wide shots of his cancer support group and hospital visits. When the blood starts to spill, the franchise’s trademark 360 pans and toe-curling gore close-ups are still naturally abundant, but fresh, stylish lighting elevates their inclusion, even on the tenth ride around the same blood-spattered track.
Everybody’s favourite I can’t-believe-it-was-originally-made-for-a-child doll Billy is back on his tricycle, looking increasingly like Timothee Chalamet. Another dead apprentice, Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), makes an appearance in a bizarre post-credit scene, and I was genuinely scared that Kramer was going to tell his assistants to “assemble”.
Atoning for Spiral: from the Book of Saw (2021)’s CGI sins, the practical effects are brilliantly repulsive, with a particularly gnarly little sequence involving a Gigli saw. The brain surgery trap is tongue-in-cheek excess at its goriest, whilst the poison gas trap provides a satisfying end to the truly evil, capitalist symbol Cecilia.
Previous instalments have oscillated across the political spectrum, with the franchise’s core theme of justice inevitably opening the door to political discussion. Across nine films and five directors, a mixed bag of ‘bad guys’ have been punished for their ‘sins’, from rapists and white supremacists to drug addicts and petty criminals.
Saw X finally finds its political sea legs, calling out phoney alternative medicine’s exploitation of the terminally ill. Cecilia’s financial and emotional manipulation of the Latinx characters mirrors Western greed’s exploitation of the precarious working class, making their grisly fates all the more agonising.
The victims’ ethical ambiguity examines the true evil of Kramer. We know that Jigsaw’s philosophy is twisted and as he sits stoically above the bloodshed, playing God, we get a sense that he knows it too. The cult of John Kramer’s dogma is agonisingly black and white, showing no mercy to the morally grey or victims of circumstance.
Saw X isn’t an examination of justice, but a character study of a grieving, violent man who finds catharsis in slaughtering under the banner of righteousness. Occasionally Kramer gives us whiplash, switching from cold enactor of judgement to humble caretaker of wounds. In one sequence, he embraces the dependent Amanda, crying silently in a symbol of anticipatory grief that wouldn’t be out of place in a kitchen sink drama. We’d grieve with them if Kramer hadn’t just decapitated someone.
These peaks and troughs are anchored by Bell’s exceptional performance, half creepy slasher janitor, half reluctant evil mastermind. Frail and ageing but maintaining his baritone death mutter, Bell is still utterly terrifying as the cruel god dangerously committed to his warped principles.
And there lies the heart of Saw X, still piling up dismembered limbs, but daring to make us care for the man who did the chopping. For Saw fanatics, the new kid on the block certainly spills its share of blood, but prepare to be served a side of movie with your gore.
Saw X is currently out in cinemas now.