As Saw X goes: You either die the villain or live long enough to see yourself become the hero.
The morality-minded murderer John Kramer — who goes by the name Jigsaw — may have died way back when in Saw III 17 years ago. But there’s nothing like a black balance sheet to bring a bad guy back to life, and here we are with the 10th film in the franchise.
All of this started way back when in 2004 as a pulpy, compelling variation on the bleakness of Se7en — a sadistic little corker in its early moments before it resorted to surprise without sense. Subsequent entries have proven fitfully satisfying: the subversion of cinematic justice tropes in Saw II; the John Kramer as healthcare czar conceit of Saw VI; and watching so many of the actors who played your favorite supporting characters from 2000s TV in Saw V subjected to that little puppet on the tricycle. And just when you thought things couldn’t get any dumber, along came Saw 3D … and totally redeemed itself.
But whatever gory pleasures this series offers are best enjoyed separately from its narrative canon — into which switchback upon switchback has been ceaselessly and carelessly carved. Jigsaw did not die with Kramer, of course, so the series has constantly trotted out new accomplices and apprentices to advance his bloody aims.
Tobin Bell, for whom Kramer has become a signature role, sat out Spiral: From the Book of Saw — the last, and worst, installment, featuring Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson as cops confronting Jigsaw’s legacy in what could charitably be called Saw: True Defective. Bell has returned for Saw X and not on tape or in flashbacks, but in the narrative here and now. This latest installment from director Kevin Greutert (aesthetic architect of the tolerable Saw VI and Saw 3D) is set between the first two films.
Just as John has rediscovered his purpose in life — devising traps to punish the wicked by sucking their eyeballs through a vacuum or whomping their skulls with heavy metals — brain cancer has begun to ravage him. His doctor advises him to retire. But there’s so much work to do! At a terminal cancer support group, John learns of Cecilia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund), a Norwegian physician in Mexican exile promising a successful experimental treatment.
Sound too good to be true? Womp-womp. John quickly learns he’s the latest to be robbed of his money and his hope, so he taps his particular set of skills to seek vengeance on Cecilia and her cohorts.
Brevity has been the rare consistent courtesy shown by the Saw series, as the previous six installments topped out at around 90 minutes. Not so with Saw X, which comes to feel like its own devious trap at 118 minutes. And as these things go, Squid Game has stolen Jigsaw’s lunch money since the last time Bell showed up, and it’s perilously evident in the largely disappointing traps here.
The eyeball vacuum is essentially a tease and the best bit, involving a radiation machine, recalls a specific Squid Game pivot of dimming lights to diminish advantage. Otherwise, this is all brain there, done splat and with none of the playfulness that permeated a similarly cynical Saw VI.
And while Saw X favors conversation over further convolution, it’s neither compelling nor convincing in concept or execution. An 81-year-old Bell looks every bit of his age and Greutert uses awkward digital softening to de-age Bell’s 54-year-old co-star Shawnee Smith, who returns as fan-favorite apprentice Amanda. She also died in Saw III (and returned through flashback and parallel sequels), disappointing her mentor in the process. However, there is very little foreboding or foreshadowing about their exchanges here, mainly just marking time to make this flesh-rending tale feel somehow meatier.
Plus, the narrative timeline is so cocked up at this point that some characters seem to know John Kramer as the legendary Jigsaw … when this takes place before his games gained renown. It’s also bereft of surprise, although, to be fair: When you’ve seen a lot of shitty movies, you recognize the dope who played the villain in The Scorpion King and immediately know he’s up to no good.
So, Saw X is no better than many of the latest installments but simply longer and thus more punitive. As Jigsaw decries the length of one villain’s larcenous dance, it’s hard not to realize this choreography is now similarly crooked.