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It’s rare for tenth installments in a successful franchise to correct for the sins of previous films, but it feels like the failure of “Spiral: From the Book of Saw” sent the people behind this money-making machine back to the drawing board, resulting in the best “Saw” sequel in years. “Saw X” solves a lot of the problems of other films in this franchise by limiting its scope, eliminating some (but not all) of the incoherent plotting, coming up with a few ingenious traps, and really centering the keys to this franchise: Tobin Bell and Shawnee Smith. They’re both better here than in any other film in the series, bringing these characters back to life in a way that feels more emotionally resonant than most of the string-pulling they’ve done in past movies. And the punishments seem to fit the crimes here a little better than some of the previous chapters, in which it sometimes felt like the Jigsaw Killer was going to extremes to punish people who might have just had a bad day or didn't call their grandma enough.
This time around, it’s personal. Kevin Greutert’s film opens with an extended series of dramatic scenes, punctuated by Jigsaw imagining a trap for a potential killer as if the producer’s note read: “We can’t go half an hour without something gnarly.” Outside of that fantasy, the opening act tells of John Kramer (Bell) learning the devastating truth about his mortality diagnosis. If you’re saying, “Wait, didn’t that happen already?” and “Hold on, John Kramer is dead,” you should know that this one takes place between “Saw” and “Saw II,” so Kramer has already become the Jigsaw Killer but isn’t, well, dead yet.
The first act of “Saw X” allows Bell to actually play the drama of coming to terms with an early demise (that fans know would ironically not be the thing that actually kills him). He goes to therapy, where he meets a man (Michael Beach) who also has a short time left on Earth. When he runs into the group member later, he’s shocked to learn that the now-healthy chap has been the recipient of a life-saving treatment. The potential for a miracle cure sends Kramer into the web of Dr. Cecilia Pederson (Synnove Macody Lund), who’s performing brain surgery in Mexico because she needs to do her experiments way off the grid. Of course, Cecilia and the team of professionals around her are part of a horrible con game, bilking dying people out of the fortune they hope to leave to their loved ones and promising the worst kind of false hope. They messed with the wrong guy this time.
The set-ups for previous “Saw” films have often been messy and difficult to follow, but this one is refreshingly simple in that we watch these people do something horrible to John Kramer, and then he locks them in a room to play his games. And fan favorite Amanda (Smith) is there to help things get appropriately nasty with a few of Jigsaw’s most elaborate devices. Before you know it, someone is using an intestine as a rope, and another victim is performing brain surgery on themselves. At least the first few traps have a clever synergy in that the people who faked surgery now have to actually do it. All of the traps are more interestingly designed and executed than most of the sequels.
But what really makes the bulk of “Saw X” effective is how openly Kramer and Amanda are involved in the action. There’s significantly less “man behind the curtain” action as Kramer makes his motives and the stakes clear—two things that have often been muddled in this franchise. And that choice allows Bell to really dig into the role with more screen time than ever, somehow making John Kramer sympathetic while he’s torturing people. Smith doesn’t have quite as much to do, but she sells a few nice beats because she understands this franchise and what it needs to work.
That was the problem with so many recent “Saw” installments. They got away from what worked by being cluttered with characters that no one cared about learning lessons that seemed kind of poorly taught. It’s impossible to say that “Saw X” goes back to the basics because that would involve just two people in a room with an actual saw, but there’s something more grounded about this film than any of the other sequels. "Saw X" returns John Kramer to the root of his mission, showing people the error of their ways and asking them what it truly means to be alive. A few severed limbs along the way are just a bonus.
Now playing in theaters.
Tobin Bell as John Kramer / Jigsaw
Shawnee Smith as Amanda Young
Synnøve Macody Lund as Dr. Cecilia Pederson
Renata Vaca as Gabriela
Paulette Hernández as Valentina
Octavio Hinojosa Martínez as Mateo
Steven Brand as Detective Parker Sears
Michael Beach as Henry Kessler
Joshua Okamoto as Diego
Costas Mandylor as Mark Hoffman
David Alfano as Doctor
Donagh Gordon as Dr. Finn Pederson
Baltimore Beltrán as Carlos Dad
Isan Beomhyun Lee as Custodian