Sunday, October 8, 2023

Resharpened and Retooled: Saw X (2023) Review

Director: Kevin Greutert

Notable Cast: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Synnøve Macody Lund, Renata Vaca, Paulette Hernandez, Octavio Hinojosa Martinez, Steven Brand, Michael Beach, Joshua Okamoto, Jorge Briseño


The third time’s a charm, huh?


Although the 8th and 9th films of the Saw franchise both essentially sold themselves as soft reboots for the long-running horror series, see our reviews for Jigsaw and Spiral: From the Book of Saw, respectively, neither one really grabbed the core ideas or style in a way that genuinely recaptured audiences after a brief hiatus after the seventh film, Saw 3D


Two failed attempts, but Saw X - which I like to pronounce as “socks” for the record, was going to find that sweet spot, right?


Well, Saw X rectifies previous misfires by returning to the start but taking a few exciting side roads. A combination of simplification in the now very lore-heavy Saw franchise and bringing back the series’ two most famous villains, Saw X does many things right, even when treading on some new territory, which has always been a problematic area for the series. With brutal new traps and a renewed sense of dramatic heft, Saw X threads many thin lines and manages to do impressively. At least when it comes to the Saw-iverse, is that a thing?


For fans of the series, Saw X brings back director Kevin Greutert to the fold after having directed one of the best of the series (Saw VI) and one of the worst (Saw 3D.) After editing most of the series, he’s well-equipped to bring Saw back to its roots. Any series fan will immediately recognize the style, from its sickly color schemes, the grungy, dirty sets, and the occasionally frenetic editing and kinetic camera shots when shit hits the fan. All of those aspects of its style, whether y’all love it or hate it, are here in Saw X aplenty. Oh yeah, if it’s even remotely close to Halloween and features wildly spinning camera shots to thumping down-tuned guitars, it’s Saw


However, it’s imperative to understand that Saw X is a prequel-sequel. Instead of a continuation of the lore and story like Spiral or a straight-up prequel like Jigsaw, Saw X makes the fascinating choice to take place between the events of Saw and Saw II. This is the first interesting aspect of this film made in its writing, but it makes sense. This allows the film to bring back John Kramer, once again played by the stoic Tobin Bell, but more importantly, it will enable the story to bring back fan-favorite Amanda, played by a strangely never aging Shawnee Smith. 


By placing Saw X within the timeline at this point, no matter what the main plot might be - which does include some conspiracy to siphon money off of cancer and tumor patients by having them come to Mexico for a miracle treatment, it allows the film to explore the tragedy of John Kramer that pushes him further into becoming serial killer Jigsaw. It also allows the narrative to examine the relationship between Kramer and Amanda, paying off like a slot machine for fans. Particularly once they complicate matters as the two start clashing ideologies about their work as killers, putting questionable human beings into traps. 


This leads Saw X to its other narrative aspect that deviates from the formula. While most of the series focuses on the “group of people that wake up in a trap and must figure out why Jigsaw has targeted them in a murder mystery gone horrifically violent,” this tenth entry makes things much more straightforward. It focuses on the victim of our group of questionable doctors, John Kramer and the audience sees events before their imprisonment within the game of deadly traps. There’s no mystery. We know why they are there. We saw it. It’s a simplification of the Saw formula that genuinely works much better than expected, especially when it’s the goddamn series’ villain who is the driving dramatic force of the narrative. 


This choice makes the film feel longer than other Saw entries, mainly because it spends a generous amount of time with Kramer before he sets up the warehouse to get these corrupt doctors and con people to learn how to be grateful for life. 


Once the film settles back into its more traditional Saw routine, it’s another fun series of teeth-gritting traps of bodily harm for many people that the audience hates on a general level just enough so that the violence isn’t too egregious. Like many of the films before, Saw X is full of interesting traps. Although some of them are more basic, including a heat gun trap that comes off as the easiest of the traps, Saw X leaps up and forces a man to perform brain surgery on himself. So, it has its ups and downs. 


Naturally, there is a third-act spin, twist, and reveal that is to be expected, but Greutert and company sell it well enough that the reveal doesn’t need to be mind-blowing for it to work. It needs to be effective in its pacing, performance, and then slather that sweet, sweet Saw theme music to swing in for it to work for me. It’s not the cleverest of Saw finales, but it works, and it fits with what the rest of the film is doing. 


For horror fans, you’re either on the Saw train or not. Saw X is not going to change that. It’s still part of the franchise, particularly in its throwback style and resharpened blades regarding its villains by making them the central characters. However, its retooled narrative structure that simplifies the formula and delivers on its promises makes it one of the best sequels of the series and fans are going to be ecstatic for what it has to offer. For a series now ten films deep, it’s odd to think that the tenth one is one of the best, but that’s always the fun of Saw. Saw X is rekindled by its back-to-basics intentions and delivers on the execution (all definitions of the word.) 


Bring on Saw XI


Written By Matt Malpica Reifschneider

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