Review: ‘Saw X’

Tobin Bell Finally Gets The Spotlight To Himself In Franchise's Brutal, Surprisingly Affecting Return To Form

Saw X has done something I didn’t think was possible, and certainly wasn’t accomplished by that terrible Spiral film with Chris Rock. It’s made the franchise feel relevant again, by going back to its roots with a simpler, less complicated story. Don’t get me wrong, the traps are just as diabolical and messy; gore fans will get their fill. But by slotting this film between Saw and Saw II as the soon-to-be-deceased John Kramer (Tobin Bell) confronts his cancer head-on, it allows for a tighter focus on the series’ most popular character without all of the narrative trickery latter films needed to keep him relevant storywise.

Something else that Saw X does is finally show Kramer coping with the reality of his terminal cancer diagnosis, while providing the grim motivation for his future activities.  We see him as he first learns that months are all he has left to live; we see him at a cancer support group, and we also see him months later when he encounters another member of that group, Henry Kessler, played by the reliable and always doomed-to-die actor Michael Beach. Just look up his films, he has a Sean Bean-like track record for dying in movies. Anyway, Kramer learns from Kessler of a miracle cure by Dr. Cecilia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund). She flies him out to the spot of their guerrila outfit with stories of being persecuted by Big Pharma, and of course a long list of satisfied customers. Pederson says all of the right things, and we see Kramer filled with hope for perhaps the only time in the entire franchise.

That glimmer of hope in his eye only makes the betrayal so much more devastating. The Saw films have done an expert job of turning Kramer/Jigsaw from villain into a vigilante antihero, but we’re actually given reason to feel something for him as a man, not just an instrument of justice. We know his ultimate fate; Kramer dies pretty early into his murderous exploits, but he leaves behind a lasting legacy of forcing people to make the ultimate choice: live or die. One of those people who carries on Kramer’s plans is Amanda (Shawnee Smith), and she is right here at his side, sporting her pig mask and kidnapping the culprits no matter where they try to hide. This film sets up Amanda’s future conflict, as well. As a former addict who turned her life around after surviving one of Kramer’s traps, she has a soft spot for others in the same situation.  Kramer’s fatherly guidance of Amanda makes for some of the film’s best moments. Longtime fans of the franchise will appreciate how future events are teased without having to get bogged down by continuity.

While the first half of the film is considerably more dramatic than expected, the second half is all torture devices, double-crosses, and bloodshed. The less one thinks about Kramer’s remarkable ability to find every complicated mechanical  device needed to create his elaborate traps, in unknown territory with limited resources, the better. Peter Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg’s screenplay deals with this by keeping the same formula for each trap; three minutes to hack or gouge into your own body to free yourself. Each trap is specifically designed for the most ironic effect, and given that each victim posed as a medical professional, the methods Kramer employs involve extreme radiation, self-afflicted brain surgery, and worse. This is not for the easily squeamish, but then you already know to expect that from Saw.

Clocking in at just under two hours, the film is definitely too long. A plot twist in the final act adds about twenty minutes of pointless jibber-jabber because we already know how things will turn out. We know the bad guys will get their comeuppance. That’s never in question. And sadly, the denoument is a bit of a letdown. Come on, Jigsaw. Get it together and act like you’ve done this before! Still, Saw X gives Kramer the spotlight for the first time in his own franchise. It only took twenty years! The wait was worth it. Bell has a firm grip on this character and it’s good to see this veteran character actor shine. Is Saw back? For now, absolutely, but continuing on with more sequels will just lead to the same problems that killed the franchise the first time. If you love Jigsaw’s brutal games of survival, enjoy this moment while it lasts.

Saw X is in theaters now.

Saw X
Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-saw-xSaw X has done something I didn't think was possible, and certainly wasn't accomplished by that terrible Spiral film with Chris Rock. It's made the franchise feel relevant again, by going back to its roots with a simpler, less complicated story. Don't get me wrong, the traps...