John Kramer Is Alive, and So Is the Saw Franchise

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Saw X. I am a fan of the series, but often times not for the reasons the filmmakers want me to be. While the original Saw is a wonderfully creative low budget effort from filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannell (whom I would argue have both gone on to make far better films such as The Conjuring with Wan and The Invisible Man and Upgrade with Whannell), it didn’t take long for the series to abandon the inventiveness of the original film in favor of more and more blood, and increasingly convoluted storytelling. Still, with some exceptions, I remained a fan, and I thought 2021’s Spiral (far more a spinoff than a sequel or reboot) was a bit of a refreshing change of pace.

However, the one thing that Spiral was lacking was John Kramer, better known as Jigsaw, played by Tobin Bell. This might not be too surprising, considering the character dies at the end of the third film, but it was still the first film in the series not to feature its star, and his appearances throughout the series – often in brief flashbacks – were often the highlights of the films.

So now in 2023 we got Saw X, from director and editor Kevin Greutert (who also directed Saw VI and Saw 3D aka Saw: The Final Chapter, and edited six previous films in the series), and we also get more John Kramer than ever before. Previously, I’d probably say Saw II gives Tobin Bell the most to do on screen, and it’s one of the reasons that’s among my favorites in the series. But in Saw X, it’s 100% the John Kramer show, and if you are a fan of the character of Jigsaw, then this is what you’ve been craving since Saw III.

Tobin Bell is fantastic, of course. He’s basically been playing Kramer for 20 years now, and he knows the character as well as any of the filmmakers. Bell is absolutely the best part of Saw X, but he’s far from the only highlight.

Taking place sometime between Saw and Saw II – though this itself is a problematic way to categorize things, since there are often flashbacks in other films that predate events in the earlier films – the film starts out with a surprisingly somber tone. We see Kramer initially not as Jigsaw, but as a regular person, struggling with his cancer diagnosis, and looking for a way to combat it. Ordinarily we’d start with a trap scene, but strangely, the first trap we see in this film is part of Kramer’s imagination, in a wonderfully effective scene that definitely won’t disappoint those who are just in the cinema to see some gore.

After traveling to Mexico to receive experimental treatment, Kramer has found that he has not been cured, and this is what sparks Jigsaw’s “game.” While certainly having plenty of similarities to all the films in the series, it also differs greatly in that there’s no real investigative plot (most if not all other Saw movies can be categorized into A and B plots, with victims and detectives), but the most striking and most interesting difference is that John Kramer is kind of the hero, or at the very least, there’s another, greater villain.

The extent to which Kramer is sympathetic will undoubtedly differ based on the particular viewer, but the film contrasts Jigsaw’s brutality with an equally sinister kind of evil from another character. It’s an interesting dynamic, and I would actually say that this is the first film in the series to effectively convey Kramer’s goals as at least somewhat righteous, even if in a twisted way. Kramer always insists that he’s not a murderer, and that he is actually helping people live better lives, and while I can think of a moment in Saw 3D in which this is called into question by one of his survivors, it’s also an attitude that’s generally accepted throughout the series. I can think of dozens of times where it’s stated – sometimes by Jigsaw and often times by other characters – that he is not actually a murderer, and to me there’s always been a huge disconnect there. It makes sense that John Kramer would believe that, but it’s odd that other characters would also accept it. And yes, you can find examples in the series of traps that guaranteed that at least one person die (though some of that is explained by his apprentices having slightly different philosophies, but not all, considering the trap Amanda finds herself in in the first film guarantees at least one death).

It was nice to kind of get a chance to root for Jigsaw in this film, and not just in the sense that you might root for him if you just want to see a lot of gore and violent deaths. Outside of the increased Tobin Bell screentime, I’d say this was the strongest aspect of the new film.

Speaking of Amanda, Shawnee Smith is also back, again despite having died in Saw III. While I think the Amanda Young-John Kramer relationship could have been handled a bit better, I’ll say it’s handled far better than it is in Saw III, which is a film that sort of hinges dramatically on that relationship. Here, that relationship is pretty strong. This pretty much gave me everything I wish I had gotten in Saw III out of the two of these characters.

I’ll also add that it was kind of refreshing to see no digital de-aging on Tobin Bell and Shawnee Smith. Yes, they look far too old for the characters in between Saw and Saw II, but I found that relatively easy to accept, and certainly easier to accept than having to look at any of that uncanny valley CGI makeup. I prefer my scares in a Saw movie come from the traps and scenarios, and not from the appearance of the characters.

Really when you boil it down, Saw X is a revenge film, and a pretty good one at that. Like most great revenge films, it centers around a morally ambiguous character with motivation you as an audience member can get behind even if you can’t get behind his or her actions. The film is very well made, with gore sequences that are disturbing, and while this may seem like a given, I’d argue many of the films in the series aim for cheers and thrills rather than some of the feelings this film left me with. It’s probably closest to the first two in the series in terms of tone, but the story is significantly different.

It’s certainly a welcome addition to the series, and while I’d say it’s obviously not for everyone, it’s surprising to see that this is the first film in the series to be relatively critically acclaimed (as of writing, it holds a critics’ approval rating of 83% on Rotten Tomatoes, more than 30% higher than any other film in the series). In a lot of the substance it’s more of the same, but the execution of the story makes it feel very different, and as the only film in the series to truly give a lead role to Tobin Bell, it greatly benefits from that.

I think it may very well be my favorite in the series. I’ve been rewatching the series in its entirety the past month or so (there’s a really cheap Blu-Ray+DVD combo pack I got at Target and I’ve seen at Best Buy which has all the films prior to Spiral), and while the first one obviously has the originality and the creativity, the execution is a bit awkward, no doubt a result of the film’s low budget. Saw X does not have the same problems that the original film has, nor does it have the same problems as many of the sequels. It may not be a perfect movie, and I confess that I don’t think I know a lot of people in my personal life that I’d recommend this to (I think I’ve really undersold the gore so far), but if you’re even a casual fan of the series, I think you’ll get a lot out of this. I certainly did. This movie really makes me wish the filmmakers had gone this prequel route after Kramer died in Saw III, rather than recycling the “he had another apprentice this whole time” twist as many times as they did. I don’t know how many more times we’ll get too see the 81-year-old Tobin Bell play the character that’s made him famous, but if this is the last time, there are certainly far worse ways to go out.

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