Saw X, 2023.
Directed by Kevin Greutert.
Starring Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Synnøve Macody Lund, Renata Vaca, Paulette Hernández, Octavio Hinojosa Martínez, Steven Brand, Michael Beach, Joshua Okamoto, Costas Mandylor, David Alfano, Donagh Gordon, Baltimore Beltrán, and Isan Beomhyun Lee.
A sick and desperate John travels to Mexico for a risky and experimental medical procedure in hopes of a miracle cure for his cancer only to discover the entire operation is a scam to defraud the most vulnerable.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, Saw X wouldn’t exist.
Between Saw and Saw II, Tobin Bell’s terminally ill manufacturer of twisted life-or-death survival games, John Kramer (also known as the infamous Jigsaw killer), notices unbecoming behavior from one of the hospital’s custodians. Immediately, director Kevin Greutert (familiar with the long-standing series, having helmed Saw VI and Saw 3D) and screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger launch Saw X into one of the usual trap sequences (the much-advertised eye-suction scene), only for it to quickly be revealed after that it was John’s sadistic imagination.
It’s one of many moments in a subversive first third shading in a humanized side of John as a man torn between continuing this legacy or not and what will ultimately break him down for good. He is naturally afraid to face his impending death, leading him down a rabbit hole of a medical experiment based in Mexico that one of his cancer therapy support group peers swears by as having recently saved his life, sending his illness into remission. Luck has it that there is also room for one more spot in this expensive experiment (involving surgery and a medicinal cocktail, the latter of which big drug companies don’t want to approve as the cure would cut into the money they make on treatments), with John heading over to Mexico and getting the procedure done.
This turns out to be one major money scam, which isn’t necessarily a surprise, but still a worthwhile plot point as it allows an exploration of John’s headspace. Under the impression that he has been cured (the graft is highly convincing, leaving no room to blame or poke fun at anyone falling for this scheme), John begins drawing up concept art for one of those deadly games, only to rip up the paper. He is done putting together these traps. He has a new lease on life and genuinely wants to spend that time doing anything besides testing whether people appreciate their lives.
However, once John realizes he has been played, the filmmakers transition this into a more traditional Saw film. That means John phones his associate Amanda (Shawnee Smith, one of the MVPs of the initial trilogy before the movies steadily spiraled into nonsensical stupidity), helping him round up the ones responsible here who were posing as individuals with occupations in the medical field. This includes the ringleader Cecelia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund), claiming to be the daughter of a trailblazing pioneer in medicinal experiments, looking to expand upon that legacy in the most scandalous way imaginable. Her underlings have fake identities ranging from nurses to surgeons, with one member of the scam, in particular, sticking out, Renata Vaca’s Gabriela, who is, in reality, a junkie mostly going along with things for cash to get herself a fix.
The filmmakers have two fascinating juxtapositions going on here, with the first being a question of who is worse; John Kramer and his disturbing mind for setting up and going through with these traps for equal parts revenge and testing if the scammers have what it takes to find salvation and reclaim their lives. These are people preying on the dying vulnerable, lying to them about promising continued life, whereas John may be a nutcase, but he is with some warped moral compass and is honest about giving his victims a chance to survive and move on.
Then there is the admirably nuanced, mostly unspoken connection between Amanda and Gabriela (the former was also a drug addict before John “saved” her) and her hesitance about putting the latter through one of those tests. Without spoiling anything, it is unexpectedly pleasant that, among all the gratuitous gore, the series has a sincere sympathy for addicts. The other participants are fodder for the expectedly violent entertainment satisfying bloodthirsty viewers, whereas Renata Vaca impresses and excels at playing a fully fleshed-out character with a compelling arc. Unsurprisingly, the same goes for John and Amanda, who are, strangely enough, this story’s twisted and depraved heroes.
Oddly, where Saw X falters are the traps. They are sickeningly imaginative and connected to the victim’s sins, but also a bit too elaborate in their construction, and still sometimes don’t necessarily feel as fair as they should. It’s bizarre to say, although maybe not too surprising since the best of the bunch is still the original film – which is as simple as they come in terms of death traps and more centered on mystery and moral drama – but the humanity of these dark and flawed characters is what keeps Saw X engaging despite its relentlessly graphic dismemberment and shock violence. It’s also less concerned with fooling the audience, content with dropping smaller revelations along the way.
Saw X is a solid, grotesquely fun installation renewing life in a presumed dead series, shading in aspects of its most complex and morally deranged characters.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com