SAW is a storied franchise, full of ups, and downs, iconic moments, and iconic stumbles. That said, for fans of the ongoing games and the way that it’s evolved over time have stuck through it all, in SAW X we’re back to the basics that made the first two films the genre-heavy hitters they’ve become known for. Directed by Kevin Greutert and written by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger, SAW X is interesting, to say the least.
Positioned between SAW and SAW II, SAW X brings John Kramer (Tobin Bell) back. It is a stark departure from Jigsaw and Spiral and gives audiences the most intimate game yet. Just after getting his “dying” diagnosis, John Kramer is desperate for a cure. When one of his cancer therapy group members gives him the recommendation for a miracle cure to cancer, he heads to Mexico City where the good Dr. Cecilia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund) cures him.
Excited for life and all the work he needs to finish, John has the rug pulled out from under him when he discovers that the whole operation is a scam to defraud the most vulnerable, letting them die from their hope, and taking their money and running. Armed with a newfound purpose, John returns to his work, turning the tables on the con artists in his signature visceral way, anger distilled into tests that few, if any, survive.
The American healthcare system has long been the real villain of SAW films, and in SAW X, John follows suit of many Americans looking for an experimental surgery they just can’t get at home. The con-doctor Pederson moves from city to city, always on the move, taking advantage of the people in the new location for her ploys. In this way, the definition of victim in SAW X blurs. The host of undesirables that are brought into Pederson’s con seem to be just as exploited as the vulnerable but are given the venom that she deserves.
It’s true that Jigsaw has never cared for circumstance, and that continues here. Prostitute turned nurse, drug addict turned greeter, and drug dealer turned anesthesiologist all find themselves stuck in John’s traps. Only, the ferocity of the traps on display in SAW X rivals anything else in the franchise. In truth, for those who have loved the puzzles and gore the traps present, this is a return to form. From removing your own brain matter to get a key to getting a radiation machine blast to the face, and so much more, the brutality of the games is upped from previous entries in the series, but ultimately returns the franchise to its roots of violence first, and lessons buried somewhere in there.
The choice to make the vulnerable who were already exploited by Pederson bear the brunt of her sins under the guise of “free will” makes the very slim time limit seem even more brutal. In that, the film struggles. Making the audience form connections with characters who very much have the will to live and resiliency but with a time limit that is closer to Amanda’s (Shawnee Smith) “no one escapes” traps than John’s tests of will. I mean, could you cut out a piece of your brain in 3 minutes?
Ultimately, the brutal and visceral traps find themselves high in the franchise. But at the same time, they undercut themselves deeply. Or at the very least, the morality they claim to uphold. With one too many switches in theme and the tone-deaf setting of Mexico in a time when migrants are being killed on the border with razor wire fit for a SAW film, there is a disparate tone that makes the audience question Jigsaw in a way that we aren’t supposed to.
While Jigsaw’s apprentices have reached the status of indiscriminate killing with no way to pass the test, John Kramer, at least at this point in the SAW timeline, is supposed to be more driven by his morals and his push to let people use their will to live. Instead, each death in the film feels like a personal attack versus a moral one. Additionally, the condensed timeline for the games creates a pace for the film that is almost untenable.
The strongest part of the film, however, is the relationship we see between John Kramer and Amanda. A fantastic duo, we get the chance to see the interactions between the two of them. Per the answers in the Q&A following the Fantastic Fest screening, SAW X is supposed to be Amanda at her most innocent and vulnerable. Just a few weeks after the original film, this Amanda is compassionate and green, and the mentor/mentee relationship between her and John is truly the shining element of the film. Amanda is the heart of the film and the best part of it.
SAW X returns to the franchise roots, but its sepia-tone Mexican setting, fast-paced torture devices, and a scattered view on morality make it a perfectly fine SAW entry, but not a great SAW film. Getting lost in the weeds of trying to turn the franchise again, driven by fan complaints for the last two films, SAW X feels like it’s chained by the past, instead of keeping the franchise moving forward.
SAW X screened as a part of the Fantastic Fest 2023 program as the fourth Secret Screening.
Getting lost in the weeds of trying to turn the franchise again, driven by fan complaints for the last two films, SAW X feels like it’s chained by the past instead of keeping the franchise moving forward.