Saw X marks the tenth installment in the long-running horror franchise, as well as the third soft reboot in just six short years. Yet what sets this particular film apart from past attempts is its inclusion of John Kramer (Tobin Bell), AKA the infamous Jigsaw himself, who died of brain cancer at the end of part three. No, Saw X isn’t attempting to retcon events from the past, or present its diabolical villain as some sort of unkillable force of evil a la Halloween or Friday the 13th. Director Kevin Greutert and screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger simply choose to go back in time, depicting events that took place between entries one and two, a conceit so obvious that it’s hard to believe it took producers this long to figure it out.
Even after his death, Jigsaw never really went away, popping up in endless flashbacks and getting namechecked to a degree that would leave Taylor Swift blushing. His legacy is impossible to deny, and fans of the series have always longed for his return on a grander scale. Fans of the series — and probably most others by this point — know that Jigsaw’s M.O. was to gather together a group of individuals who had participated in some iteration of the despicable (which they thought hidden) and force them to fight for their lives by having each one play an intricately constructed “game,” involving everything from bear traps clamped on heads to pits of syringes. The idea was simple: self-mutilation as the path to enlightenment and salvation. Yet as defenders and detractors alike have been arguing since 2005, Jigsaw’s actions aren’t always above the line. Indeed, the majority of the traps seem rigged from inception, the actions required to “win” impossible to accomplish in the short timeframe allotted. And that’s not even taking into account how most of the participants would pass out from shock within about ten seconds of even attempting such actions; adrenaline is one thing, but then there’s performing crude brain surgery on yourself with no anesthesia.
The fact that Jigsaw has always wanted to punish above all else is thus an important distinction to make, as the Saw films have inspired a lot of debate about morals and ethics, which is pretty impressive for a horror series that features a character’s head exploding by getting slammed between two giant blocks of ice. Yet Saw X finds the series drinking its own Kool-Aid, a sequel so full of itself that it smothers any sort of potential fun in the process. As the film opens, John Kramer is diagnosed with that aforementioned brain tumor and given only a few short months to live. A chance encounter with a fellow participant at a group therapy session gifts John with something resembling hope, as he is informed of a Dutch scientist whose experimental work with cancer cells has produced astonishing results. It isn’t long before John is headed to Mexico — cue the yellow filter — and meeting Dr. Cecelia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund) and her capable staff, who promise to cure John of his terminal ills. Unfortunately for John, they are also nefarious grifters looking to make a quick buck from individuals in their most desperate states. Unfortunately for the swindling assholes, John Kramer is Jigsaw, and it isn’t long before he has gathered them all up to play a new set of games. That’s right: this time it’s personal.
Jigsaw has always suffered from what one might politely describe as a God complex, and the ethical questions the franchise elicits concern what makes him worthy of judge, jury, and executioner status? Saw X is smart in that it presents a group of truly reprehensible individuals who have done personal harm and foul to John himself — regardless of any value judgment, his motivations are at least entirely legible. This approach goes a long way in creating empathy for a character that has never truly earned it, regardless of the various hoops past entries have attempted to maneuver over the past 18 years. Unfortunately, Saw X is also undeniably boring, a film that takes forever to make its way to the main action, and then keeps pausing so that its characters can have so-called “meaningful” conversations about the morality of John’s actions. Points for being self-aware, but they’re also quickly deducted for going no where of interest with the material. The setup alone takes 40 minutes, its slow play potentially effective in theory and clearly designed with the intent of further humanizing John Kramer, but it kills any sort of tension before things even get going. (At one point, John does imagine a trap for a random individual he sees doing wrong, but this inclusion feels like a mandate by the studio, who was clearly beyond pissed that one-third of their latest Saw film’s runtime consisted of Tobin Bell sitting at various tables and benches and drawing in his sketchpad.)
The way the games themselves are presented this time around is actually novel in that it’s almost like a behind-the-scenes look, as John completely abandons any pretense of mystery to his actions. Both he and his accomplice, Amanda (Shawnee Smith), a victim from the original later turned co-conspirator, do nothing to conceal their identities, and interact freely with the participants, chatting up a storm between rounds of grotesqueries. But this decision robs the film of any momentum it might be capable of building, a series of starts and stops that is maddeningly brake-pumping in execution. There’s also quite a bit of fan service going on in regards to John and Amanda. For fans, seeing the two on screen together again, this time sharing moments both lighthearted and emotionally fraught, will offer a twisted delight, but this too is accomplished in the most pedestrian ways possible. And none of this is helped by Greutert’s direction, which is roughly as lazy as everything else here, nor by the fact that the traps are objectively the least clever of the entire series. The film does effectively deliver the gore, with a few stomach-churning moments, but did we really need to bring a child into these proceedings? The fade to title at film’s end is especially egregious, signaling a Saw film whose ignorance in regards to its supposed importance would be laughable if it wasn’t so pathetic. There will undoubtedly be more than a few diehards out there who will mistake this entry as its masterpiece, the Saw universe’s twisted take on Logan. But real ones? Real ones know.
DIRECTOR: Kevin Greutert; CAST: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Steven Brand, Synnøve Macody Lund; DISTRIBUTOR: Lionsgate; IN THEATERS: September 29; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 58 min.