THE STORY – Hoping for a miraculous cure, John Kramer travels to Mexico for a risky and experimental medical procedure, only to discover the entire operation is a scam to defraud the most vulnerable. Armed with a newfound purpose, the infamous serial killer uses deranged and ingenious traps to turn the tables on the con artists.
THE CAST – Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Synnøve Macody Lund, Steven Brand, Michael Beach & Renata Vaca
THE TEAM – Kevin Greutert (Director), Peter Goldfinger & Josh Stolberg (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 118 Minutes
It’s hard for any long-running franchise to sustain itself throughout the years. The novelty that was present when the first film bowed loses its luster as time goes on. There can be occasional bright spots, but it’s a difficult task to remain at a consistently high standard. For many, the entries in the “Saw” franchise may not have ever reached heights that were worthy of recognition. However, there is a dedicated legion that has an affinity for this gruesome saga with perhaps the most ridiculous continuity timeline that has ever been put to screen. Still, even the diehard fans can recognize that the valleys have far outnumbered the peaks. Yet, with “Saw X,” the series looks to return to a more stripped-down status and ends up delivering a significant improvement from the less desirable work that it has been plagued with in the past.
There’s slightly more fudging with the timeline here as this film decides to set itself well before many of the events of the numerous sequels. Placement-wise, it’s shortly after the first film’s events, and John Kramer (Tobin Bell) is still looking for the cure for his brain cancer. He is referred to an experimental procedure being performed in Mexico, headed by Dr. Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund) and a group of associates. However, Kramer soon learns that no medical procedure had taken place, and his money was stolen from him. This prompts his killer instincts to arise, and a lesson needs to be instilled. He recruits his longtime collaborator Amanda (Shawnee Smith) and sets up a gruesome game for the lot to play. Each is tested, but soon, the horrifying truth to learn will be revealed.
As much as Kramer/Jigsaw has been a dominant presence in these films, it’s notable how much Bell has often played like a supporting actor in his own franchise. Part of this is due to the character being deceased through most of it (it’s a long story), so it’s quite nice to see him given more of a central role to play. One can certainly sense more of a weariness to his persona, but that ends up fitting the frailer man who is riddled with disease. Bell has always brought a great presence to his portrayal, and he once again shines here. There’s a captivating aura that surrounds him, particularly with every bone-chilling oration that explains the rules of engagement. It’s difficult not to think this is his best turn in this role.
The surrounding ensemble has also been a notable element, though not always for the best in previous installments. Smith’s return is a welcomed one, and while she doesn’t reach any of the emotional depths she showcased in the past (“Saw III” is her specific highlight), the interplay between her and Bell is compelling. As far as the group enduring this torture is concerned, most of them feel rather anonymous, unfortunately. Lund has a devilish charm that is eventually exposed, but it’s played a bit broad to leave the most significant impact. The rest are merely cannon fodder, which, while expected, is disappointing more of a connection isn’t felt, given the amount of time spent with them in the lead-up to these events. The roles are shallow, and none create a significant emotional connection to find oneself invested.
Despite being one of the more well-known horror films out there, it must be said that these movies have never been especially scary. Sure, the imagery is nightmarish, but genuine suspense has never really been a focal point. That’s what makes this particular one all the more intriguing. Director Kevin Greuternt has been responsible for both high and low points in this series, but here, there is a real attention to create an effective mood that is appreciated. It feels as if authentic care is taken for the first time in a long time to build sequences that not only indulge in elaborate set pieces but are also tense in moments with a creepy atmosphere. Still, the showcase for brutality is needed; the film revels in such sights in a way only this series can. The traps may not be the most inventive, but they are captivating displays that strike the appropriate tone.
Writing has never been the strongest asset for these movies, but credit should be paid to Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg for their attempts to build up the narrative to give Kramer the proper motivation to pursue the task at hand. The downside is that much of the story feels padded, most notably in the first act, which is undercut by the tenuous emotional strands attached to the other characters. There’s an effort at some twisty revelations, but they end up mainly landing flat and feeling rather pedestrian. It’s clear this story is harkening back to the intimacy of the first film with its closed surroundings, but that film had a far more intriguing premise with people at the center that were more interesting. There is a decent foundation established here, but the script never seems to truly become more innovative. Even its sparse tries at subverting previous tropes ring hollow when some of these characters’ fates are known not to end here. Still, it’s more work than has been usually filed for these pieces, so that achievement is commendable. It’s just that the storytelling is too stilted in too many places to feel completely successful.
At the end of the day, “Saw X” is a film that will more than likely only appeal to those who have stuck with this series from the beginning. It’s hard to imagine someone who hasn’t responded well to the other films suddenly jumping into the tenth installment. However, there is respectable craft being showcased here, with scenes that both delight with the gore but also ratchet up the anxiety through impressive filmmaking. The story itself may feel padded and inconsistently engrossing, and many characters don’t leave the most memorable of impressions. Yet, having the chance to see Tobin Bell take a more active role in the narrative is a delight, and what results is a high point for this franchise. One can barely imagine an array of films getting a jolt of appreciation this far down the bench, but this one has indeed succeeded.