As John Kramer (Tobin Bell), a.k.a. Jigsaw, emcees another spectacle of savagery, he tells his victims, “This is not retribution. It’s a reawakening.” The statement would seem to suggest that Kevin Greutert’s Saw X is here to reinvent the long-running Saw franchise. If so, that would make it the third or so attempt at such a reengineering.
Darren Lynn Bousman’s Spiral, for one, was probably the closest we got to a quasi-prestige iteration of a Saw film, what with its bluntly ambivalent (really, incoherent) cop rhetoric and gliding SteadiCam shots. But, for the most part, that film was like any other Saw, even if its queasiness was less in its outright violence and more in the blithe way it used politically loaded imagery: pigs and their guts, literally and metaphorically, spilled all over the place.
Kramer was more of a ghost on the periphery of that film, and here he’s on hand to cement his status as an antihero of sorts. Without worrying about the series’s convoluted mythos, this one serves as a direct sequel to the first film, taking place before Saw II. And that information is important insofar as Kramer is still alive and facing a terminal diagnosis of brain cancer.
When he bumps into someone (Michael Beach) from his cancer support group, Kramer is directed toward the work of Dr. Finn Pederson (Donagh Gordon), who claims that his unapproved three-pronged approach can cure cancer. He makes contact with the good doctor’s daughter, Cecilia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund), travels to Mexico for the $250,000 treatment, and wakes up with a new lease on life. But when he returns to the site of the procedure, an icy glass cube that had been filled with seemingly state-of-the-art medical equipment, he finds it abandoned and realizes he was conned. And, with the help of his dutiful assistant, Amanda (Shawnee Smith), he tracks down everyone who wronged him.
This preamble to the expected Saw experience takes around 40 minutes, and in that time we only see one trap, which is assigned to a hospital orderly who’s stealing from patients and, turns out, is just in Kramer’s imagination. That reveal is a hint at a more interesting film—that is, one that aspires to get into the head of Bell’s Big Bad in more ways than one.
That this trap, which involves sticky fingers being broken and eyes being sucked out, is only an idea germinating in Kramer’s mind and comes after the opening credits contrast their text with CT-scan images of his cranium, sets up the expectation that Saw X might end up being more of a character study. The film is unable to deliver on that promise, as well as the one where Amanda gets to do anything interesting other than occasionally serve as a spark of a conscience.
But it’s difficult to hold those unmet expectations against Saw X, even as it twists and turns in its attempt to make the reason for Jigsaw’s actions have more pathos or feel more justified. Jigsaw’s victims, we’re reminded, are terrible scammers—people who’ve robbed others of real hope through their medical malpractice. And Lund, as the chilly fake doctor with cheekbones as sharp as a bone saw, holds her own through the torment, serving a little Diana Kruger along the way. It’s she who, finally, challenges Jigsaw’s rusted metal fist of a moral code, but this rhetorical inversion comes too late to make that much of a difference in the film’s trajectory.
The real disappointment is that Shawnee Smith, who makes a return to the series for the first time since Saw VI, is relegated to mostly doing John’s dirty work. It’s hard out here for a disciple, and Smith hasn’t had the chance to show off her chops as an actor since Saw III. But in Saw X, we do get crumbs of what makes her so thrilling as a performer, particularly one in the horror genre: She’s all id, a tempest of emotion and fully embodied desperation and psychosis.
Smith imbues the films in which she appears with wit and humor, as well as the stakes to make the films more than a parade of bone-crunching, marrow-slurping, and bloodletting. Despite the thinness of her role, Smith captivates for the way she’s able to get us to trust that Amanda trusts someone like Jigsaw. She’s the ultimate follower that paradoxically has the charisma and dynamism to lead herself. Which makes you wish that a Saw film would finally let Amanda be the one that audiences worship. We’d drink the gory Kool-Aid for her.
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