People have got to stop fucking with John Kramer.
“Saw X” hits theaters this weekend, and while every installment in the now ten-film franchise could be attributed to one of the OG Jigsaw’s three ridiculous backstories (car crash! wife’s miscarriage! brain cancer!), this is the closest the series has come to producing an outright revenge flick. Brutal, self-aware, and roughly 30 minutes too long, it’s a face-to-face cage match between John and a surprisingly formidable new foe that’s perhaps best summed up by the “Bones and All” line: Never eat an eater.
Tobin Bell stars in a “Lion King 1 1/2” situation that lets us visit the notorious, “hands-off” serial killer between the events of “Saw” and “Saw II.” Alive and in-person, we’re meeting Kramer a few weeks after he trapped Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell in that basement for “Saw,” and some months before he throws that Nerve Gas Rager (feat. DJ Needle Pit) in “Saw II.” That means “Saw X” is taking place sometime between 2004 and 2005; a timeline further supported by the revelation that John “The Jigsaw Killer” Kramer uses a Motorola Razr flip phone.
In a classic international pivot for the franchise, complete with problematic Mexico filter, the terminally ill Kramer heads south of the border for an experimental treatment touted by its creators as a miracle cure for illness. But when John discovers Dr. Cecilia Pederson (the magnificently slippery Synnøve Macody Lund) and her medical team are swindling desperate patients with a snake oil scheme, it’s game on. And reader, these poor idiots may very well be the most psychologically tormented subjects in 19 years of “Saw” history.
Although “Saw X” has fewer traps than some other installments, taking Jigsaw’s show on the road means he must improvise — and fast. With limited supplies and a tight timeframe (John’s got stuff to do! He can’t be in Mexico forever!), the surprisingly sympathetic torturer rounds up his victims and addresses them directly in a one-night-only, single-location engagement. It’s a startling switch-up to hear pleading victims referring to Kramer by name, but they’ve already seen his medical files and he is searingly pissed. With every sinister speech, the gravity of these con artists’ sins sinks them deeper into a hell of their own making and the specifics of their conspiracy come back at them times three. (Seriously, it’s their medical equipment they’ll be using to, you know, “make their choice.”)
Ravaged by the final stage of his cancer, John can’t do this alone. Enter victim-turned-apprentice Amanda, finally on the Jigsaw company retreat of her dreams. (Or should I say honeymoon? Depends on your fan theory.) It’s no secret Shawnee Smith is making her triumphant return to the franchise for the first time since 2009’s “Saw VI.” But her pitch-perfect performance — self-aware, soapy, and rivaling Chris Rock for funniest in the series — is still stunningly effective. Donning a pig mask, red cloak, and deeply regrettable haircut, Amanda stalks around the city like a pint-sized Michael Meyers, collecting her mentor’s wrongdoers in a sequence that is undoubtedly too long but smartly suspenseful.
The start to “Saw X” is similarly slow and could easily be cut down. The first shot sees Kramer inside of an MRI machine (the first tip-off we’ll spend the movie with him and not the cops), and soon takes us to a cancer support group where John is struggling to cope with his diagnosis. Even knowing he’ll indirectly scalp a woman/drown a man in pig guts/commit countless other indefensible atrocities, it’s hard not to feel a little bad for John. When he grimaces at a counselor’s assurance (“Today is a gift, that’s why they call it the present!”), you’ll feel a quiet impulse to buy horror’s most hypocritical maniac a shot of tequila.
Bell, finally given the meaty part he’s deserved since he spent a feature-length film in that pool of blood, dominates back at the warehouse. The gore has never looked more realistic. “Saw X” takes a back-to-basics approach with its utterly nauseating contraptions, drawing out the traps’ various premises before launching the thieves into mercilessly short testing times. Billy the Puppet makes the trip to Mexico, but with not a single VHS tape in sight, the theatricality is largely left up to Bell. He’s precise and stern without ever pushing too hard: the human embodiment of ye old “I’m not mad, just disappointed” reprimand. When he does yell, you’ll flinch; and when he doesn’t, you’ll be begging to release the tension. (It’s worth nothing that, yes, both Bell and Smith have aged. But if that’s where you’re struggling to suspend your disbelief, you’re not really thinking this whole destination murder spree through.)
“Spiral” reinvigorated the main “Saw” series with pops of comedy and some particularly prescient political messaging. But even set nearly two decades ago, “Saw X” finds clever ways to stay relevant. Discussions of Big Pharma and the increasingly bad reputation of health care providers keeps the story contemporary. Unfortunately, director Kevin Gruetert repeatedly gets his pacing tangled in Kramer’s more philosophical moments. You’ll have to weather a number of flashbacks to events that just happened — surely a hallmark for the franchise by now — and despite John and Amanda’s genuinely entertaining dynamic, there are scenes where they really should shut up. That could just as well be blamed on screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger, who don’t quite pull off what they did with “Spiral” but certainly surpass their earlier “Jigsaw.”
Without getting into spoilers, the ending is a bit of a head-scratcher. It hardly ranks in the franchise’s most clever twists, and you can bet some parents will be thoroughly horrified to learn there is an actual child put into a “Saw” trap. (Welcome to Hollywood, kid!) That said, the escape room smarts of the Pederson Group make up for most of the film’s loose ends and, even if you see one or two of the narrative surprises coming, there’s no chance you’ve seen as intelligent a use of human entrails.
You don’t need to watch the other movies in the “Saw” series to enjoy this one, but it will help. With some Avengers-style phone calls in Act One and a mid-credits kicker, this is “Saw” in the superhero age. It’s a flick for the die-hard fans that rewards those who keep asking for more. After a decade as Halloween’s most hyped-up annual release in the aughts, “Saw” is finally back this October to tell Taylor Swift she’s not the only one doing vigilante shit. Congrats, Tobin. You deserve this one.
A Lionsgate release, “Saw X” opens in theaters Friday, September 29.