Saw X (2023)

Directed by:
Written by: ,
Starring: , ,

Directed by Kevin Greu

By his tenth entry, Jason had become a parasite, then gone to space, and Michael had been rebooted after a rapper kicked him in the face. In contrast, Saw X stays true to the iconography and style of the original films, even dialling back some of the goofier aspects of parts 7-9 for something more tense and even sombre. Kevin Greutert has now made three of these and is as much a part of the franchise aesthetic as Wan and Bousman. Evidently, it’s a labour of love for him: a back-to-basics outing that omits much of the convoluted lore for a more intimate movie built around the big bad, John Kramer. It’s rare to see franchise horror do a perspective piece from its villain, and one wonders if his name was ever considered as a title ala Logan, Rambo or Rocky Balboa. It even has similar themes of ageing, legacy and faded glory.

Taking place between the first and second, we follow John as he struggles to balance out his career as a (sort of) life coach with his ever-worsening cancer. However, someone from his support group may have an answer: a highly experimental miracle cure being touted by a secretive company that’s available to anyone with a spare 250k under the couch. John flies out to Mexico for the surgery only to find out shortly after that it’s been all a big con. With the help of his contactshad in the police (he doesn’t appear, but fans will know him) and his sidekick Amanda, John subjects the con artists to some of his nastiest contraptions yet. And that’s it! By now, the franchise has become a soap opera of betrayals and returns, with Jigsaw having had more apprentices than Lord Sugar. It was fine when we were getting one a year – even rewarding for a series to embrace continuity. But it’s good to have as little baggage as possible for a comeback entry. Especially after both Jigsaw and Spiral ended up being awkward false starts – neither of which I think we’ll ever see continued.

Still, for the first act, Saw X seemed to drag – the long stretch at the beginning seemed excessive since we know John’s cancer is still alive in Saw 2, so it must be a ruse. Yet, in hindsight, this section is necessary for putting the audience in the right headspace for a film where he’s the protagonist. Unlike other entries, he’s never the villain watching from the side – there’s no switch to the victims as they try to navigate his labyrinth – so we need an emotional buy-in that he was duped. We’re supposed to sympathise with him, and outside their abduction scenes, we rarely see the people in the traps outside his watchful eye. The Saw franchise has sometimes struggled to deal with the tension between wanting to see what the traps can do and giving us people we want to see survive. It’s name was always a wordplay on voyeurism, and, at its best, it delivers something frank while confronting its audience about what they’re getting out of it. Saw X walks this line well, giving us characters that we want to see answerable for the false hope they give John. We don’t necessarily want them to die – Gabriella seems to have had no other options – but we do want Jigsaw and Amanda to get away as the walls close in.

Crucially, it achieves this without sanitising their behaviour. Unlike Don’t Breathe 2, which did a similarly baddy-fronted sequel, Saw X doesn’t shy away from the things Jigsaw has done – even if it perhaps leans too close to him being a noble vigilante towards the end. It tries to explain him without excusing him: a crucial distinction since the monster needs to remain a monster. For instance, it brings some of the contradictions in his beliefs to the forefront, and even if they are not interrogated as much as I’d have wanted, it trusts the audience to think about them more than John himself does. Still, one surprisingly moving scene tests his moral code and why he distances himself from the run-of-the-mill murderers he despises. It helps that Tobin Bell and Shawnee Smith are brilliant in their roles, doing reassuringly familiar performances but with greater emotional weight than we’ve seen before. She’s ready to yell whatever is in her head that second, as his chilling gravitas and determination mean he can’t be reasoned with. We fear her because we don’t know what she’ll do next, and we fear him because we know exactly what he’ll do. It’s also surprisingly emotional seeing them share the screen again as master and apprentice rather than rivals – though I was glad to see the script hint at some of the dividing lines that would come to a head in Saw 3. On the other side, Synnøve Macody Lund is utterly superb as the morally bankrupt Cecilia Pederson – more than the others, she embraces the game aspect and is more than a match for her captors.

And then we come to the traps themselves. Going in, I wasn’t convinced that the gory scenes would translate well into a contemporary horror film – torture flicks are at least a decade out of date. Yet the first one, an eye-grabbing fantasy that’s on the poster, shows Saw X isn’t playing games. For fans of the series’ signature, these are among the meanest and goriest things Jigsaw has come up with – and well worth the occasionally frustrating wait. They aren’t the series best – those tended to lean a bit more on the dark comedy/irony to make a point about the victim (the carousel from part 6 comes to mind, or the needle pit from 2 comes to mind). Still, their raw, grisly quality brings their rusty engineering and cruelty to the forefront. Having the characters all face each other as they do the traps one by one gives an uncomfortable feeling the worst is yet to come. On that point, being a Saw film, you can expect a few twists and turns. Some of them don’t land – one, in particular, is too obvious to have the impact that it was surely meant to. Still, it builds to a thrilling third act that subverts the series’ conventions. Overall, Saw X gives the franchise a new lease of life, gifting fans by far the strongest entry since the sixth – we’re in the ‘best since the last good one’ territory all legacy artists and sequels eventually operate within. And with room for a follow-up, I hope we get another game soon.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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About david.s.smith 459 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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