Admit it, you kinda missed Jigsaw.
Sure, Spiral, the most recent entry in the hugely successful Saw horror film franchise, had Chris Rock in the cast. But a copycat killer just doesn’t compare to the original, John Kramer, played so indelibly by Tobin Bell in every other film in the series. Fans of these twisted torture porn films (whose names should probably be registered with local authorities) will be happy to hear that Bell is back in the 10th and newest entry, imaginatively titled Saw X, and that he has more screen time than ever before. That’s what not being dead anymore will do for a character.
The Bottom Line Sick and twisted, and those are the selling points.
To explain for those unfamiliar with the franchise, Bell’s character John Kramer, who was nicknamed Jigsaw for grisly reasons which need not be explained here, died at the end of Saw 3. But that didn’t keep the films’ producers from bringing him back in future installments in the form of flashbacks and recordings. They’ve now gone backward in time for this film, which takes place between the events of Saw and Saw II. Hope you got all that, because there’ll be a test at the end of this review.
Anyway, in this film Kramer is still suffering from the terminal cancer that would actually not be the thing to kill him (look it up if you must). This provides the ironic opportunity to see Jigsaw — who’s put more people than you can count through gruesome tortures that often led to their deaths — participating in a support group for cancer sufferers. But hey, every villain has a sensitive side, especially when it comes to their own demise.
When he later runs into a fellow group member (Michael Beach) who has made a remarkable recovery, Kramer finds out about a life-saving treatment devised by a Norwegian doctor that naturally hasn’t been approved in the U.S. So, after contacting the doctor’s daughter, Cecilia (Synnove Macody Lund), who’s taken over the practice, he heads to Mexico and undergoes the supposedly life-saving surgery at a secret clinic outside Mexico City.
It all turns out to be a scam, of course, with the doctors, nurses and even the driver who picked Kramer up from the airport all part of the con. And if there’s one person you don’t want to con, it’s John Kramer, who soon turns the tables on all of them by capturing them and subjecting them to his very particular brand of gamesmanship. Aiding him in his efforts is his trusted apprentice Amanda (Shawnee Smith), who was at this point still his trusted ally. (That both Bell and fan favorite Smith are many years older than when they originally played their characters in this time frame is just something you’ll have to get over.)
It takes a little longer than usual, but Saw X eventually gets around to its true raison d’etre, which is depicting in gory detail the ways in which Jigsaw’s victims either succeed or fail at extricating themselves from the gruesome, Rube Goldberg-style death traps he’s devised for them. It usually involves having to make horrible choices, such as (in this film’s case) having to saw off your legs to prevent yourself from being decapitated, breaking your arm and foot to stop yourself from being irradiated to death, and cracking open your skull and removing your own brain matter to … well, you get the idea. This is the sort of horror film in which a character using someone’s intestines as a lasso is simply par for the course.
“You guys are fucking sick,” an observer tells Kramer and Amanda, and it’s hard to disagree with him. (Who needs critics when the characters do the work for you?) Nonetheless, these films are undeniably fiendishly clever in the way they make Kramer somehow sympathetic even while he’s doing monstrous things to people. As he frequently likes to point out, he never does any actual killing — his victims always have the opportunity to survive if they just have enough guts (sometimes literally). Early in the film, when Cecilia asks him what he does for a living, Kramer tells her, “I help people overcome personal obstacles,” and you halfway believe him. You wind up cheering him on, both because his victims are so reprehensible and because he’s so damn ingenious in his diabolical engineering skills.
None of this would work nearly as well without Bell, whose raspy voice and menacing gravitas are so riveting that he makes Jigsaw’s oft-repeated declaration “I’d like to play a game” scary as hell. He’s made the character truly iconic, much like Robert Englund did with Freddy Krueger. Accept no substitutions.
Production companies: Twisted Pictures
Cast: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Synnove Macody Lund, Steven Brand, Renata Vaca, Michael Beach, Paulette Hernandez, Octavio Hinojosa, Joshua Okamoto
Director: Kevin Greutert
Screenwriters: Pete Goldfinger, Josh Stolberg
Producers: Oren Koules, Mark Burg
Executive producers: Daniel Jason Heffner, Ketura Kestin, Jason Constantine, Gregg Hoffman, James Wan, Leigh Whannell, Stacey Testro
Director of photography: Nick Matthews
Production designer: Anthony Stabley
Costume designer: Jimena Tenerio Martinez
Editor: Kevin Greutert
Composer: Charlie Clouser
Casting: Nancy Nayor
Rated R, 1 hour 58 minutes