The makers of the “Saw” movies probably thought they were clever when they killed the villain off back in “Saw III.” But over time it’s become clear that, although Jigsaw’s many apprentices worked hard to keep his legacy alive, John Kramer — the raspy-voiced horror icon played by Tobin Bell — was the beating heart of this series, and that heart stopped.
Jigsaw is back in “Saw X,” but he’s also still dead. The film is one long prequel, taking place at an indeterminate time before most of the previous installments. It’s a little confusing to see Kramer drawing up plans for deathtraps that, as we learn later in the movie, he has already invented and used, but it’s a lot less confusing than the timelines of the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh films, which employed a dizzying flashback/flashforward/flashsideways structure that perhaps rivaled only “Last Year at Marienbad” in its temporal complexity.
“Saw X” brings a simplicity to the “Saw” series that, frankly, it hasn’t had since James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s first short film back in 2003. There’s no gimmicky parallel editing and, for once, Jigsaw’s plans are relatively clear from the get go. Kevin Greutert’s film has a few surprises, but it doesn’t need them. The appeal of this series was always Jigsaw, deathtraps and a sense of purpose, and “Saw X” delivers all of those. Some of the other “Saw” films are more exhilarating
and have a greater impact, sure. Most aren’t.
John Kramer is in the final stages of terminal brain cancer when he learns of an experimental treatment. It’s available off the books and only in Mexico. With nothing to lose he ventures south, where a scientist named Cecilia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web”) introduces him to her helpful staff and readies him for a procedure which she promises will cure him. No, really, she swears she’s found the cure for cancer. It’s totally legit.
If that wasn’t already a red flag I’ll remind you once again that this is a prequel, and we already know where John Kramer ends up. That doesn’t stop screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger — who also wrote the underwhelming eighth and ninth “Saw” movies — from treating the first half of the tenth like a David Mamet movie. Weirdly enough, the gambit mostly works.
Spending this much time with Kramer as he believes that maybe, just maybe, his
nightmare is over reminds us why we cared about him in the first place and adds to the film’s inevitable tragedy.
The second half of “Saw” finds Kramer doing what he does best, building Rube Goldberg death machines and shoving people who need to learn a valuable lesson into them. Maybe they’ll survive. They probably won’t. Either way, it’s exceptionally gory and shocking in the grand old “Saw” tradition.
In returning to Jigsaw’s original, righteous quest to give people a gruesome opportunity to redeem themselves, “Saw X” also sets for itself a high standard. It doesn’t always live up to that.
A fake out featuring a sexual assault, in which the sex worker victim turns out to be Jigsaw’s target instead of their assailant, serves no great purpose and places the film’s moral center on shaky ground. And although Kramer’s modus operandi is to give all his subjects an opportunity to survive — if they can overcome intense panic, debilitating pain, and head-spinning adrenaline spikes, and also operate machinery that’s completely alien to them with uncanny precision, all in just three minutes — sometimes he simply doesn’t do it.
The most annoying “Saw” deathtraps are the ones where two people are stuck together but only one of them can live. Hoffman was the kind of unethical Jigsaw killer who would totally do that, but it’s hypocritical coming from the real deal.
So, mistakes were made. “Saw X” doesn’t make many of them. Greutert’s film brings back the core elements that made these movies work. It’s an uncomplicated, effective horror thriller, even though it’s trapped itself in the past with nowhere else to go. It’s unclear just how long a franchise can last by telling almost all its stories in the gaps between other, better known tales, since the iconic versions of old characters are easier to exploit than any of the new ones. But hey, if it’s good enough for “Star Wars,” it’s good enough for “Saw.”
“Saw” is in theaters September 29.