2023 | R | starring Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith | directed by Kevin Greutert | 1h 58m |

For a horror sequel, 10 installments in, it’s hard to treat it as a singular stand-alone film and not compared to the rest of the series. If 10 Saw films deep you’re coming into Saw X fresh as a baby not knowing what to expect that’s on you. Unlike other movies, which are competently made, but fall short of their originals, this is very much to the advantage of Saw X which blows apart a formula that Twisted Pictures has clung to so tightly for 9 movies it refused to give the franchise the room to grow. Saw has notoriously refused to build with it’s profits, unlike say The Purge series that has taken on different angles of it’s premise, Saw is mostly the same. Bad men in warehouses being tortured by traps. Saw X is like the very special episode of a sitcom that suddenly starts taking itself serious. It cares about it’s story and it’s characters. Hell, it does something I never thought I’d see in a Saw movie – it goes outside into the daylight for long periods.

Upon receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, John Kramer (Tobin Bell) uses his skills as an architect and engineer to kidnap terrible people who don’t appreciate their life, strap them in a trap and force them to make a sacrifice to free themselves. His alter-ego, Jigsaw never actually kills anyone. One day in a cancer support group he gets wind of an experimental treatment in Mexico and ventures down there for the procedure. After a weekend of being pumped up with rest and hope he learns he has been scammed by the group’s doctor Cecelia Pederson (Synnove Macody Lund) and her crew and exacts a particular brand of revenge on the unsuspecting scammers.

I was continually shocked by Saw X. The way it diagnoses things that didn’t work about this franchise and addresses  them. It stops short of being a Jigsaw origin story, set between Saw and Saw II after he has started his reign of moralizing terror. It expands the scope out of the basement to the hills of Mexico City and most importantly it centers on it’s golden goose: Tobin Bell, who delivers an earnest performance in his 80s that makes us sympathize with Jigsaw even as he’s responsible for psychotically dismembering the people in front of him. The series’ biggest mistake was always killing off John Kramer too early, relegating him to a creepy voice on a microtape. In this scenario John wants the people that did this to know who he is and what they did and stays out of the shadows.

Another smart move it makes is ditching the usual “police investigation” storyline that plagues these movies. As a result we get no cut-aways to someone who may or may not make it to the basements in time. We stay with John Kramer for the first half and in the basement for the 2nd half. The script works with well as a cat-and-mouse game that both endorses and interrogates John Kramer’s methods. It’s fun to revel in the revenge aspects, but at the same time you can’t help but get on the seat’s edge as someone almost, maybe, gets inches from saving their life. We as audience members can’t help but root for someone with a plan and an honest effort even if they’re villains. Among the group of kidnapees’ is Gabriella (Renata Vaca), a young innocent-looking girl who got hooked on drugs and wound up in the wrong crowd. Knowing the history of Jigsaw protegee Amanda (Shawnee Smith, who gets a jackpot hero entrance) and her history with drugs, draws a conflict between Amanda and Jigsaw and complicates our sympathies.

Saw X is a decent movie on it’s own. It looks good and it’s occasionally both nerve-wracking and kind of funny (at one point a character references another and the camera whips back and forth between her dead body and severed leg). But as a Saw movie it is a revelation, with traps the characters can actually get out of (something lacking in the latter films), Kramer’s babbling philosophy, good work from Bell and Smith and an effectively surprising ending twist in keeping with both the Saw formula and this movie’s new tone. It’s a lot of fun.

For me, the best Saw movies are the first, Saw II and director Kevin Greutert’s Saw VI. VI was the first time the franchise flexed it’s creative muscles turning this premise into an Obama-era healthcare satire with a satisfying character driven twist. Saw X joins that little list, it’s exactly the kind of movie I wanted to see after VI instead of the rushed, cynical finale we got.