This month, I became a Saw fan. After avoiding them for years due to their reputation, and having caught the very bad Jigsaw (2017) and the utterly terrible Spiral: From the Book of Saw (2021) just because they were new movies at a time I was watching a whole host of recent releases. Eventually I got round to Saw (2004) and was passingly impressed by it, finding it to not be the torture porn fest it is described as and therefore deciding to leave the sequels alone. And then people kept saying Saw X was good. And then people pointed out that, though it is set between the original and (the rushed into production and really not very good) Saw II (2005), you should have still watched at least Saw III (2006), and actually 4 through 6 would provide some useful — though not necessary — context.
So I indulged and found the series not to be what I expected. I Saw the light. What I had written off as just pointless excess I found to be gleeful ridiculousness. A kind of self-serious straight camp where it looks grim and nu-metal but is actually a soap opera. The thrill is twists at the end of every film that retcon the entire series, weird Biblical overtones and character continuity. They are remarkably silly movies that have been weighed down by an unfair reputation. Though, they are also decent gore movies. The traps, far from ‘porny’ are mostly very creative and entertaining. They forces certain character dynamics and operate in the wild Book of Job logic that underpins the franchise.
The other highlight is Tobin Bell’s John Kramer (a.k.a Jigsaw). An excellent actor, Bell gives so much to a role that is very little on paper. He has presence and menace while being able to carry off the campier side of the series — he is funny. He is so good that, despite Jigsaw dying very early on in the series, they keep finding ways to include him. In the end, it is established that Jigsaw must have spent most of his life planning out decades of traps, fully resourced and staffed by disciples, that would be implemented beyond his death and would include his voice. The man is a planner and he cares about what he does.
Saw X realises that Tobin Bell is the appeal, and also the film’s production is a recognition that the heart of the franchise is not James Wan (original director, co-creator and co-writer), nor is it Leigh Whannell (original co-creator, co-writer and supporting actor in the first film), it is Kevin Greutert. The aggressive stylisation of the films, a very particular editing cadence, is as core to the franchise as convoluted torture devices. Kevin Greutert edited 1 through 5 (2008), and Jigsaw. He directed Saw VI (2009) — arguably the peak of the franchise (though III is my Saw of choice) — and 7 (Saw 3D (2010), which is underrated), and has now been brought back to direct and edit Saw X. The man knows Saw, and to him, the Saw is family. So how do we get Bell back?
Well, as mentioned, Saw X is really Saw 1.5 — a Saw Gaiden, per se (or per Saw). John Kramer is still alive and is able to be the main character of the film, taking centre stage in a way that the franchise hasn’t quite facilitated yet. He is still brilliant in the role though, arguably, the film is too much of a fan. It is a decent narrative for a Saw movie: Kramer is dying of brain cancer; he stumbles across an ‘unapproved’ by ‘big pharma’ treatment; he gives a lot of money to be treated and… Well, it is no surprise that it is a hoax. But you don’t hoax Jigsaw, not when he’s in the mood to play a game. The rest of the film is him getting revenge on these hoaxers in the only way he knows, and there’s a twist at the end with that amazing theme music. Solid Saw stuff. Clean, efficient, lightly reminiscent of Saw VI and not too bogged down by plot and continuity (though built in a way that rewards those who know who is who, and how things link, echo or foreshadow).
Alas, we spend too much time in sad Kramer mode. For a film where it is very obvious that this is a con, it spends an eternity going through the motions — and emotions. Pulls for pathos don’t really work and this slightly overlong instalment could certainly be trimmed at the start. The framework is a good one, but an unearned turn towards sincerity isn’t pulled off very well. There’s humour in it, which is indulged in (a happy John Kramer, thinking he has his life back, sketching out trap designs in a little notebook), and the film would be better sticking in this tone rather than mining out conventional drama. It is going over very traditional beats, ones that are emotional, but you can’t just chuck a serial killer (okay, he doesn’t ‘kill’ people) in the middle and expect it to work.
But then things get Sawey. It is a stripped-down, on-the-road, MTV Unplugged version. The traps were never hi-tech (and it makes no sense even here how he rigged these all up) but there’s a pleasing low-tech, scrappy approach here. The mad editing still pops up (especially in an early trap that is included on the poster) but the rest is amusingly sombre. It’s not quite the Logan (2017) of the Saw franchise, but it is as close as the series should get — satisfyingly so. And satisfying is the word. We return to a more classic setup of multiple characters in one torture room, each with their separate games to play. We get some heightened dynamics and the actual traps themselves are rather inspired. They are pulled off with grand guignol glee by creatives who have done this before, know what works and know where they can take it. The effects are incredibly proficient and, if you can handle guts and gore, you will have a lot of fun. There are appealing, ‘oh, they’re going to go there’ moments and, at every point, it manages to embrace the inherent absurdity of it all. That being said, there are few faltering points. There’s a very brief moment of sexual violence that has no business being in the film, and just doesn’t fit the tone, for example.
Primarily, Saw X is just really well-done Saw stuff. The characters work and it has the feel of a group of people that deeply understand what makes this franchise work, what the template should be and — most importantly — are able to pull this off. We are not opening up new doors or straying beyond what has proven to work, but it is one of the most consistently effective films in the franchise. The final twist is partly predictable but deeply entertaining. Though, the final trap is certainly a bit of a letdown and the ultimate twist feels like it’s missing one final layer to allow it to match up to how mad it can be. There’s a surprisingly classy restraint to the film, which helps it to work overall but means it doesn’t quite hit the unrestrained highs of moments in the wider franchise.
Do you want another Saw film? Have you enjoyed Saw before? Do you feel the franchise has ‘lost its way’? If you answer yes to these questions, Saw X is the proficient course correction you’ve been looking for. Stripped back but still meaty where it matters, and with the promise of going even madder in the future with the post-credits reveal. Though, the post (well, mid) credits scene is ridiculously placed, as the film ends leaving a massive plot thread dangling (one that should have been rectified) and then just deals with it right away after a couple of minutes of big red names on screen. As good a stinger as it is, it should just be in the movie.