Saw X is a Bloody, Boring Slog Through Basic Brutality

Tobin Bell’s banal John Kramer aka Jigsaw is a bothersome being. His shtick has always been ‘put bad people in brutal torture traps and tell them to maim themselves to escape it’, making the torture the most compelling part of a Saw film. Plot doesn’t matter – which is a strange thing to say given the extremely convoluted timeline for the Saw films with this being the tenth entry in the series, but it’s set between the first and second film – after all, we’re just here to see people destroy their bodies in a bid to try and survive a gruelling Rube Goldberg machine of death.

When we think of Saw, we think of the masterful bear trap head device, or the key trapped in a bucket of used needles, or maybe the simplest trap of them all: a chained man needing to saw off his own foot to escape. These traps are narratively tied to their victims, as in the case of the addict and the needle pit or are genuinely compelling creations that both look menacing and appear practically possible.

Which makes Saw X, the latest (and the longest, at 118 minutes) entry in this decade’s long series the worst of a battered bunch as cancer afflicted John Kramer sets up a set of room full of basic traps to enact his revenge on a group of scammers who promised him a cure for his illness and instead left him $250,000 poorer and with three months left to live. For the Saw faithfuls, fear not, I won’t spoil some of the traps, other than to say that as they appear early in Kramer’s killing career*, they’re rather bland and considerably dull when presented on screen.

Series regular director and editor Kevin Greutert (the guiding force behind the series other notable duds Saw VI and Saw 3D) decides to put audiences through their own version of a Jigsaw trap as he spends the first half hour following Kramer as he undergoes cancer treatment, daydreams about torture traps, and then discovers the promising radical treatment that will cure him of his cancer. While some may call this character building, I call it sleep inducing tedium.

Ever the artist, we see Kramer sitting in a park, sketching in his notebook a familiar device, hinting at his future exploits, and suggesting that we might see the imaginative grand designs that Kramer yearns to inflict on future victims come to life. The first and the best torture scene plays out as a daydream. This dream-based brutality sees the intended victim – a hospital attendant who fondles a patients ring and watch for far too long as he considers stealing them – get their eyes sucked out of their head by a pneumatic tube-like system. For the screening I attended, the sound cut out in this moment, and it was then that I wished I was the victim: no sound, no sight, and no longer enduring Saw X.

This viewer-based anguish isn’t helped by the dull and deadly serious narrative that aims to reposition Kramer as an anti-hero of sorts as he enlists the support of series regular Amanda (Shawnee Smith) to teach a lesson to the medical scammers, like getting them to break their ankle to escape restraints, amongst other acts of self-harm. How kind and altruistic of him.

Tobin Bell has given compelling performances across his career, but the Saw series has given him little to work with, and even though these humanising moments should provide something for him to sink his creative teeth into, he instead just floats through like he’s in the tenth entry in a well-worn horror series that’s spent its last two films trying to reinvent itself as a series that still means something.

Saw X reinforces just how bland a horror villain Jigsaw is, so much so that when his hokey accoutrement in the shape of the iconic clown doll on a tricycle appears, you can’t help but feel like you’re being subjected to an aged magician running out of tricks. There are only so many times you can watch the pigeon being crushed in a cage before you lose interest.

Saw X is so deadly serious that when one character strips a newly dispatched colleague free of their long intestine and remarks ‘now we have a rope’, it’s delivered with such little awareness of the comedic potential in the moment that it slaps like a sodden wet towel: painfully. Granted, the Saw series has never been one to embrace its comedic potential, but it has at least been about gnarly deaths happening in gruelling ways to people who don’t always deserve it, and this film can’t even get that right.

Yes, I’m aware that criticising a film for not killing its paper-thin characters creatively enough is a rather inhumane thing to say – ‘die better chum!’ -, but when that’s literally what we’ve paid to see, it’s not too much to ask for something that’s even just a little unnerving. There was a time when the cruel deaths of earlier Saw films haunted my dreams for days after viewing them, but tonight I’ll be dreaming about the nasty roll I had for dinner after the film. The real horror was the soggy lettuce stuck between its sad dough sides. I’m not sure I’ll recover.

There comes a point in some horror series where you find yourself siding with the villain and cheering on their heinous, murderous ways. We love seeing Jason and Michael Myers cut the local population down by a teenager or twenty because they’re figures with one sole purpose: death. Equally so, we find the games that the various Ghostfaces tease and taunt their victims with entertaining because they’re like a cat and mouse game. What sets Jigsaw apart from these figures is that his victims simply aren’t compelling enough to find some kind of voyeuristic interest in seeing them die. For a brief moment, Saw X looks like it’s going to play around with the morality of Kramer by equally questioning the audiences engagement with what he’s doing, but that’s quickly swept aside in lieu of staid shocks and D-level drama. There was a chance to question just how complicit the audience is in the thrills we’re seeking from the violence on screen, but Saw X simply isn’t interested in that conversation.

As Jigsaw, John and Amanda are bland figures acting as basic dungeon masters for their malicious game of Mouse Trap, and Bell and Smith meet these characters on their level, delivering tired performances. Instead of presenting as maniacal masterminds, they come across as a bored married couple nattering about their torture plan like they’re trying to decide which frozen pizza to buy at the supermarket for dinner. We spend so much time with them that it’s clear Greutert has forgotten that we’re here for the gore, not for their basic interactions and dialogue.

If there’s one scene chewing character, it’s capital V Villain Dr Cecilia Pedersen (Synnøve Macody Lund), the mastermind behind scamming poor old John Kramer. Cecilia jumps from country to country picking up vulnerable folks to take part in her scam. These poor sods barely rate a mention as nobody-level characters utilised as fodder for the death machines that sob and scream like they’ve missed out on the last Dorito in the chip packet.

Saw X takes place predominantly in Mexico, leading the series into a questionable area where archaic racial stereotypes occupy the space of characters where every Mexican character is poor and therefore a criminal, a drug addict, or a rapist. This kind of cultural depiction is almost expected in a Saw film, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less of a disappointment to watch. It’s 2023 – we deserve better from our horror films.

The Saw series has spent a fair while trying to dig itself out of the hole left by the (I guess spoilers for earlier Saw films?) deaths of both John and Amanda, and yet all roads seem to keep coming back to… John and Amanda, and given how mind numbingly boring they are here, and the post credits promise of more of their nasty exploits, it’s clear that the series is happy to keep rerunning the same old charades. As a Saw series faithful, having rocked up each opening weekend to get my gore fill, I think I’ve reached my limit.

*As John Kramer continually says, ‘I’m not doing the killing, I’m giving people a choice.’ Sure John.

Director: Kevin Greutert

Cast: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Synnøve Macody Lund

Writers: Peter Goldfinger, Josh Stolberg

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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