Tobin Bell’s performance as the now legendary horror icon John Kramer – AKA Jigsaw – was mere minutes in length in the first film, and yet made such an impact that he has gone on to appear in almost every film in the series since. Despite his character dying in the third entry, Bell’s incredible performance has made the character so layered and complex. We’ve learned more and more about him through flashbacks and his connection to other characters, but Saw X marks the first time that he takes up the lead role and we are invited to see the film from his perspective. The story follows John after the events of the first film, with mere months to live. After expensive experimental treatment he receives is revealed to be a con, he embarks on his most personal game to offer “a reawakening” to those who wronged him.
Taking place between the first two films, divisive early press for Saw X outlined the film would be an “emotional journey” with John and hoped to make us empathize with him – how, after 9 films, are you going to retcon this sadistic horror icon into someone we root for? While he’s always been a character with a moral code not found in killers like Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees, it was a bold, risky move to create a whole film – the longest in the series at just shy of two hours – in the assumption we will be on his side. And it paid off. At the time of writing, Saw X sits at 82% on Rotten Tomatoes. That is, by some considerable margin, the highest rating the Saw franchise has seen.
While Saw’s fanbase has always championed the series and argued against its lazy reputation as schlocky torture porn garbage, some of the later sequels are difficult to defend – especially the seventh installment, in gimmicky 3D. What a delightful surprise, then, to find that Saw X offers genuine drama and a superbly compelling story, with incredible performances and stunning cinematography. The film looks and feels prestige, and harks back to the glory days of the franchise when it was firing on all cylinders with gripping stories alongside harrowing-but-not-overly-gratuitous violence through inventive and imaginative trap sequences.
At the film’s heart is Tobin Bell’s magnificent performance, which one expects will be his final time in the role. If that is the case, what an impeccable send-off for his iconic character that absolutely nobody else could have played. Producer Mark Burg recently said to People Magazine: “This is his Saw movie, this is his dialogue. I mean, the writers write Tobin’s dialogue and then Tobin’s like, ‘But John Kramer wouldn’t say it this way. And Jigsaw wouldn’t say these lines this way.'” Bell’s passion for the character is evident in his performance, and with the entire first act dedicated to his character and his battle with cancer before we even get into the film’s main “game”, he is given plenty of time to shine. While casual fans of the series may find the pacing to be tedious, longtime followers will love the opportunity to spend this time with John Kramer.
Another change of pace for the series that goes along with this focus on Kramer is that we don’t have the usual police procedural subplot running alongside, with detectives scrambling to bring Jigsaw down. Gone is the cat-and-mouse stuff. This is all Kramer, no filler. Also returning and contributing to the film’s heart is fan favourite Shawnee Smith as Amanda, Jigsaw’s troubled apprentice. Their chemistry is superb, and their quiet scenes together are among the film’s highlights. Much like with Kramer, the concept of making this character sympathetic was a big challenge, but the film’s script and Smith’s performance make it look easy. There’s some interesting foreshadowing in her character here, too, which series fans will enjoy. An interesting choice made with Smith – and indeed Bell – is the lack of distracting de-aging technology, with the film putting all its chips on their performances. This proves to be a good gamble, as both stars are incredible here and their ageing isn’t even remotely an issue.
There are some mis-steps. The film’s final act and ‘twist’ are not up to the franchise’s early standards for a genuine unexpected surprise. It’s all a little predictable, which isn’t helped by the film’s trailer that gives away pretty much the entire film. Also, making the ‘victims’ of Jigsaw’s game so evil and unlikeable may aid the film’s mission to make Kramer more sympathetic – but the caveat is that it means the tension in whether or not they will survive their traps is lost, as we absolutely want them all to die. The now iconic ‘Billy’ puppet is a little wasted, too. The film also faces the usual prequel issue of lessened dramatic tension with regard to the survival of characters with franchise armour, ie. those we know make it to later installments.
Ultimately, though, after the slightly underwhelming final act, a mid-credits fan service cameo is enough to end things on a very high note for fans. Saw X is a deliriously entertaining return to form for the franchise, taking us back to the glory days of mid-2000s horror. If the Academy had even a shred of respect for the genre, Tobin Bell would be securing a Best Actor nomination for his work here. Saw X is the finest entry since the harrowing 2004 original. Packed with gruesome and imaginative traps along with genuine heart and a compelling story, Saw is back.