Saw X oozes with cruel, raw brutality.
Gore, brain tissue, detached eyeballs, slippery intestines, and foaming bone marrow are aplenty as serial killer John “Jigsaw” Kramer (Tobin Bell) concocts some of his most creative and vicious traps yet. But behind all of its bloodshed and grittiness, Saw X offers a poignant, highly stylized story that brings unprecedented humanity and emotional depth to the beloved franchise.
Set after the events of 2004’s Saw, a fragile, meek John Kramer is told by his oncologist that he has mere months to live. Cancer is ravenously devouring his brain, and he grows weaker by the day. He bumps into a former patient, Henry Kessler (Michael Beach), from his support group.
Kessler has apparently been cured of his terminal pancreatic cancer and tells John of Dr. Cecilia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund), an unorthodox doctor who has a miracle treatment. In a touching scene of desperation, John contacts her for help.
After Cecilia narrowly accepts him into her program, he flies to her off-the-grid clinic in Mexico City and is welcomed by another former patient, Gabriela (Renata Vaca), with whom he forms a bond.
Cecilia warmly greets and comforts John. She introduces him to her seemingly kindhearted medical team—doe-eyed anesthesiologist Mateo (Octavio Hinojosa), mild-mannered nurse Valentina (Paulette Hernández), and enigmatic surgeon Cortez (Joshua Okamoto). Beaming with hope, John is prepared for surgery.
Post-op, he awakens to Cecilia congratulating him on a successful procedure, accompanied by improved bloodwork. John is euphoric and sees life in a new way, going so far as to scrap any plans for future traps.
He buys Gabriela a gift to thank her for her kindness, but upon return to the facility, John finds it ransacked. Medical equipment and a battered VHS of Learning Neurosurgery are sprawled across the upturned operating room. Upon removing his bandages, John realizes that he’s been scammed. In a heartbreaking moment—and one of the greatest in the film—we see John’s vulnerability as devastation and humiliation consume him.
He begins his bloody path of retribution with the help of former victim and apprentice, Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith), who kidnaps each con artist. With the “medical team” chained up in the former facility, the classic duo begins their game.
In the two decades that Saw has existed, no film has tapped into John Kramer’s psyche like X.
Written like a standalone feature, screenwriter Josh Stolberg masterfully exposes a side of Jigsaw that is rarely seen. We are offered his heart, his mind, and his fragility as death approaches. His little moments of humanity—such as helping young local boy Carlos to fix his bike—unearth refreshing emotions for the character.
To support Stolberg’s work, Tobin Bell creates a loveable antihero and protagonist, with a empathetic performance that is easily the finest of his career.
Amanda makes a much-anticipated comeback that proves worth the wait. Her erratic behavior, snarky quips, and deep love for John remind us why she’s such a great character. Smith easily slips back into her roots here, offering a likability and sense of morality to Amanda that is often clouded by her malevolence. Her soft spot for fellow drug addict Gabriela was a great touch, hinting at Amanda’s eventual questioning of John’s work. Bell and Smith’s intimate scenes together have a haunting, effective sense of sorrow, made more painful by knowing what happens to them in the films that follow.
The first 30 minutes of X feel ethereal, packed with stunning shots of everyday life that are not shown in other Saw films. We’re reminded that an entire world exists outside of blood-stained bathrooms and abandoned factories, and it’s fascinating to see John, as a normal man, operate in it.
X’s traps recall the grisly, rust-ridden, homemade aesthetics of the first three films. Each depicting a creative mockery of an invasive medical procedure—and, by extension, malpractice—these contraptions are gruesome and so perfectly visceral, notably in Cortez’s, Valentina’s, and Mateo’s. However, due to the sliver of time given to the victims for these complex traps, they feel more like Amanda’s doing, rather than John’s.
Gabriela’s test, while not as disturbing as her co-conspirators, is a favorite for its brutality that’s harshly rooted in reality for so many. Her trap, and John’s explanation for it, give a grave reminder to the viewer about how cruel Pederson’s scam was and the people it affected.
Punctuating these traps is the film’s cast. Each actor offers a raw, paralyzing sense of fear and urgency. No one offers a weak performance, but Hinojosa and Hernández are standouts in expertly showcasing their terror and smarminess.
Hinojosa adds some comedic aspects to his portrayal of Mateo. In addition, the small insight we’re given into his relationship with Gabriela helps create a well-rounded, fleshed-out character in the screen time he’s given.
Lund brings arrogance and selfishness to her portrayal of Cecilia, creating a truly disgusting and cruel villainess that you love to hate.
While Mateo, Valentina, and Gabriela are clearly not great people, they’re evidentially ones that have fallen into shady business due to a desperate need for money. Cecilia, on the other hand, is an old-school baddie who cares nothing for others. She seems to do what she does because she likes it. You root for John and Amanda as he goes up against her and her sly manipulation tactics. Her fate—though contested—is a slick reference to earlier Saw flicks.
The film’s last act puts John and Carlos’ friendship to the test with a blood-soaked (but wholesome) finale. It keeps you on the edge of your seat and forces you to cheer on the Jigsaw killer in a remarkable flip of the narrative. Charlie Clouser’s classic industrial-infused score helps set the stakes, and a certain familiar, nostalgic theme will be a crowd-pleaser for fans.
While some moviegoers may write Saw off as torture porn, don’t.
X is the finest installation of the franchise to date, second only to Leigh Whannell and James Wan’s original. Franchise aside, though, it stands on its own as one of the greatest horror flicks of the last decade.
Though it features some gnarly, gross-out traps, Saw X is a harrowing, beautifully shot story of a man’s morality, his humanity, inner fears, and his confrontation with—and acceptance of—his own death.
dir. Kevin Greutert
Opens Friday, 9/29 in theaters everywhere (though the Hassle recommends Apple Cinemas or your locally-owned multiplex)