Wasn’t X-pecting That! The Breath of Fresh Air That is Saw X

Believe it or not, it’s been almost 20 years since the original Saw was released. The horror film that is not only a standalone masterpiece of its genre, but also essentially pioneered the torture porn subgenre of horror. Whether that’s for better or worse is up for debate, but it’s probably one of the most heavily-discussed types of horror film. As the Saw franchise went on throughout the late 2000s and early 2010s, it became more focused on the gratuitous gore and less focused on the psychological aspect and plot. By the time it got to Saw VI and VII, three accomplices had been unveiled and John Kramer himself was long dead.

Then came Jigsaw and Spiral: From the Book of Saw in 2018 and 2021 respectively. Both reboots of the franchise attempt a new spin on Saw, and for different reasons, both miss the mark. I personally wasn’t a fan of either; Jigsaw simply didn’t feel like a Saw film, plus there were many aspects of it that didn’t make sense, and Spiral was both extremely predictable and centered around a lackluster, misguided political commentary. And now, finally, we have a new Saw film in 2023 that absolutely nails it.

As soon as it was revealed that Tobin Bell would be reprising his role of John Kramer (aka the Jigsaw), as would Shawnee Smith as OG accomplice Amanda Young, I instantly had hope. Now, this was all the information I knew going into Saw X; otherwise, I went in completely blind. I’m extremely glad I did; I’ve since watched the trailer and it’s spoilers galore! Regardless, I was excited since I’m a huge Saw fan (granted I’m therefore a bit biased), but I still went in with no expectations. 

What’s Going On This Time?

John Kramer looking serious with blue lighting

Saw X is set in between Saw and Saw II, and is centered around John Kramer’s attempt to get treatment for his terminal brain cancer. He attends a support group for cancer patients, and through one of these companions, finds out about a Norwegian doctor who uses experimental medicine to ‘cure’ people’s cancer. This man’s daughter, Cecilia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund), is continuing her father’s work as he has had to go into hiding from big drug companies. She runs her own clinic in Mexico City, which Kramer is referred to upon contacting her.

The first twenty minutes or so of Saw X feels like a cheerful healthcare commercial with a dream-like quality to it. Kramer even befriends a child called Carlos (Jorge Briseño) and helps to fix his bike? It’s far too hopeful, and we know it’s not going to last this way for very long. I mean, not only is it a horror film, but it’s Saw, and we know Kramer’s brain cancer doesn’t get any better right up until he dies in Saw III. As I was watching, I was waiting for the moment it would all come crashing down. And boy does it.

After Kramer’s ‘brain surgery’, he returns to the clinic with a thank-you gift. Upon his arrival, he discovers the makeshift hospital has been abandoned, and finds a DVD of live brain surgery that was being played to him during his operation. Gasp—it was all a scam! It is a bit hilarious that they just left a DVD of Brain Surgery for Dummies on the side while operating on Kramer…and they’d somehow managed to scam loads of people? Of course, the point is that fake healthcare professionals like this prey on vulnerable people and exploit their willingness to hope, which is horrendous. Just the execution of this was quite goofy.

It’s after this that the film pivots into proper Saw territory. Kramer kidnaps Diego (Joshua Okamoto), the multi-tasking taxi driver and fake doctor, and bam! We have our first trap. (Well, there is technically another one at the start of the film, but I’ll come to that later.) As a result of interrogating Diego, Kramer gathers information on the other accomplices. There is an extended sequence of the pig-masked person (who is soon revealed to be Amanda!) kidnapping everyone involved in the surgery: Valentina (Paulette Hernández), Mateo (Octavio Hinojosa), Gabriela (Renata Vaca), and finally, Cecilia. Personally, I thought the kidnapping sequence dragged on a bit, but the tension was effective and the jumpscares didn’t fail to surprise me despite suspecting the outcome.

Amanda Young stands wearing her pig mask, lit by car headlights

These four characters become the subjects of Kramer’s newest game. Amanda is also heavily involved, but she essentially operates as his intern, mostly observing how he runs things and helping out. It’s part of Amanda’s training, as Kramer is preparing her to take over from him as Jigsaw once he dies. There is a spanner in the works in the form of Parker Sears (Steven Brand), another victim of Dr Pederson’s scam, unexpectedly entering the warehouse to get his own personal revenge on Cecilia. He ends up spectating, rather awkwardly caught in the crossfire of someone else’s far more extreme vengeance. This loose cannon keeps things interesting, as it adds an element of unpredictability. We can’t guess how Parker will affect the game as this is utterly unfamiliar territory in the Saw world. He certainly turns out to be more of a key player than initially thought.

Back to the game. Each victim is ‘tested’ one after the other; Valentina and Mateo don’t make it, but Gabriela survives her trap. Good for her! It’s always satisfying to see someone actually survive as intended in the Saw films, and Saw X has multiple instances of this. Unfortunately, this victory is short-lived, as Parker chooses this moment to hold Kramer and Amanda at gunpoint and demand they free Cecilia, shortly before Cecilia snaps Gabriela’s neck. There we have it, the first major plot twist: Parker was also part of the scam and is here to save his—drumroll, please—girlfriend! I must admit, I didn’t see this one coming, so color me impressed! I suspected Parker was going to mess up the game big-style, but not that he was actually allied with Cecilia. Love being got by a good plot twist.

The tables turn as Kramer himself is forced into one of his own traps intended for Cecilia. Oh, and the child from earlier that Kramer befriended? He happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and is put in the trap with him. Yep, you read that right—a child is put in a Saw trap. This film did not pull any punches and I respect its outrageous boldness in doing so. Ultimately, Kramer remains one step ahead, as he rigged a trap in the control room that tricks Cecilia and Parker as they go to grab the cash they stole from the victims they scammed. A fight ensues between them, and Cecilia ends up murdering Parker to ensure her own survival. He picked the wrong side and paid for it.

A tonally bizarre happily-ever-after concludes the film, with Kramer, Amanda, and Carlos walking out into a lovely sunset with their lives (and all that money) intact. It’s such an absurdly wholesome ending for a Saw film that almost makes you want to “aww” at this literal serial killer and his accomplice. I can’t properly articulate how Saw X managed to earn such an ending, but when those credits rolled I simply couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

John Kramer with his hand on Amanda's shoulder as they watch the game

The Killers And/Or Victims

In general, I was a big fan of the characters and performances in Saw X. Tobin Bell as John Kramer was perhaps the best he’s ever been. In previous Saw movies, Kramer hasn’t had a significant amount of screen time, mostly odd cameos and shorter scenes (except for Saw III when he’s bedridden the whole runtime). So, for him to be the firm main character of this one meant he got the focus he deserved! Bell’s quiet yet commanding presence is utterly mesmerizing; the man can talk in a mere whisper yet fill the entire scene. It is a truly impressive performance and one that is consistent with the previous films too.

Kramer’s morals and philosophy are also firmly in line with earlier Saw films, too. The victims in this story are chosen for a deeply personal reason, as these are people who have directly harmed him with their healthcare scam. This gives the games and plot extra weight to it, making it much easier for the audience to feel emotionally invested. Despite his disgust for these people, Kramer sticks to ensuring they have a chance of survival in their traps. His motivation is always to teach people a lesson and give them a chance to redeem themselves, not kill in cold blood. This is a deeply flawed and hypocritical perspective, but that’s just Saw for you. Kramer is positioned as a victim to a certain degree, and the narrative gives him the moral high ground above those who are scamming people. So, controversially, there is a great amount of sympathy for Kramer here. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s that serious or deep. Across the duration of Saw X, there is a lot of poking fun at itself. I mean, Kramer refers to himself as a sort of “life coach” at one point, which is the most comedic he’s ever been. It feels purposely light-hearted and provocative. 

Second-in-line to Kramer, we have the original accomplice, Amanda, who also has a satisfying amount of screen time. From victim to Jigsaw killer, she’s probably the most interesting character in the entire Saw franchise next to Kramer himself. Since Saw X is set between Saw and Saw II, we get to see Amanda just starting out in her training, filling the role of mentee to Kramer’s mentor. Her emotional volatility is very much apparent in how she snaps at Valentina and takes a certain amount of pleasure in scaring the victims. She also works very well as the muscle of the team, being the person who kidnaps all the victims. 

However, one thing that stood out for me as being a little out of character with Amanda was her sympathy for Gabriela. Oftentimes, Amanda has been seen to be aggressive and impatient with wanting to kill the victims as soon as possible, something Kramer has had to reign her in for. In Saw X, she gives a certain lenience to Gabriela, putting off her pain. The reasoning for this is that Gabriela is an addict, and Amanda empathizes with her due to her own experiences with drug addiction. I can understand that Amanda would relate to her—the connection is rather obvious—but it doesn’t seem to fit with her usual ruthlessness. If anything, I believe it would have made more sense if she was actually harsher towards Gabriela, but I understand the logic behind the decision.

Gabriela looking scared

You’d think with Kramer and Amanda being serial killers they’d be the bad guys, but surprisingly not. As mentioned, they’re framed as the protagonists, and the people in the game are not only antagonists but the full-blown villains of the story. Namely, Cecilia specifically. She’s actually portrayed as being worse than Kramer, not only for what she did to him personally but all the terminally ill people she targeted. As Kramer says, “You kill with false hope”; at least his own traps give people a chance at surviving. In contrast, Cecilia is actively deceiving people. Sure, Kramer is a serial killer, but he’s no liar! That definitely means he has the moral high ground, right?

This conversation certainly does add more intrigue into the discussion of morality in Saw X. When Parker is caught in the crossfire and made to observe the game, he says that what Kramer and Amanda are doing is sick and wrong. This is the first time we get that more objective (and correct) perspective of their killings. However, this becomes a moot point when Parker is revealed to be one of the villains working alongside Cecilia. We’re not supposed to sympathize with him, and since his views are an extension of him, it can be inferred that we’re not supposed to agree with him either.

Cecilia herself is even more ruthless. The only scene in the film that strikes me as downright cruel (apart from, you know, a child being put in a trap) is when she breaks Gabriela’s neck after she survives her trap. It feels deeply unfair and unnecessary; she won her game, so she should get to escape, and she wasn’t even posing any threat whatsoever to Cecilia or Parker. Kramer was going to call an ambulance the moment Gabriela escaped her trap—fair’s fair, after all. Again, this direct positioning of Cecilia against Kramer demonstrates the narrative representing her as antagonistic. Even though the story is obviously written to make us root against Cecilia and Parker, it’s impressive just how hateable they actually were. It takes a lot to achieve that.

I Want To Play A Game

What about the actual traps? I hear you ask. Don’t worry, I’m getting there. The set-up of this game is particularly harrowing, as each participant has to play their individual game one after the other while everyone else watches. Can you imagine the fear and trepidation while you watch other people undergo such suffering, knowing for a fact you’re next? It sends a shiver down my spine. Well, strap yourselves in (quite literally) because the traps in Saw X were a wild ride. In fact, why don’t I do a little ranking of them, just for fun?

Valentina crying, trapped with her head behind a Gigli saw

7. Deadly Gas (aka. couples therapy): Cecilia and Parker are trapped in the office when poisonous chemical fumes are released. The only way to survive is by sticking your head through a ventilation hole in the wall, but—oh no!—there’s only room for one person’s head! Now, this one isn’t really a proper trap, it’s more of a ‘gotcha’ moment. The way in which it played off of both Cecilia and Parker’s selfishness by exposing their relationship as situational and disingenuous was great though, and we love a good survival of the fittest moment.

6. Watch Out, He’s Armed!: Diego wakes up with his hands entirely duct taped up, a scalpel poking out of both hands, and explosives wired into his arms. He has to cut the bombs out of his arms using the scalpels before his time is up. It’s a pretty cobbled-together trap—the duct tape on Diego’s hands looks a bit silly. But the bombs definitely add high drama to it, and he actually does escape too! Go Diego!

5. Brain Surgery for Dummies (for real this time): Mateo is strapped to a chair with some kind of open mask attached to either side of his head. He must use surgical tools to cut into his skull and remove a certain amount of cerebral tissue, drop it into a box that dissolves it, and obtain a key to unlock the contraption and get out. But we know Mateo isn’t a real doctor, so he fails his game, running out of time. The mask, which turns out to be heated, encloses on his face, scorching him to death. We also never see his burnt face as the mask doesn’t reopen, which surprised me, but the unknown element almost makes it more uncomfortable.

4. Suspending Your Disbelief: Gabriela is shackled by one wrist and the opposite ankle and suspended from the ceiling. A giant canon of fatal ionizing radiation blasts her in the face until she uses a sledgehammer to break her limbs and escape. What’s cool about this one is that Cecilia advises Gabriela to break her ankle first, as she’ll swing out of the way of the canon, which she does. But then, as a sneaky failsafe, the canon follows her! So she has no choice but to break both limbs. I mean, did we really think there’d be such an easy solution? Props to Gabriela for surviving this one too (screw you, Cecilia). 

3. Eye Suck!: In an interesting, non-canon vision of Kramer visualizing a trap, a custodian from the hospital who he catches in the act of stealing from an incapacitated patient ends up regretting his life choices. He is strapped to a chair with tubes attached to both eyes, and metal strings attached to each finger on one hand. With his other hand, he must turn a dial-up to five to break each of said fingers. He only gets so far before his time runs out, and his eyes are sucked out by vacuum tubes. This is a horribly gory trap that they really went all-out on considering these events didn’t actually happen. I think what gets me is that the eyeballs are sucked out one by one as opposed to simultaneously. It would be so much worse that way! Eek.

Mateo trapped in a metal contraption

2. You Won’t Be ‘Gigling’ At This: Valentina’s head is trapped behind a Gigli saw which will decapitate her once her time is up. To escape, she must use a second Gigli saw to saw through her leg, then extract enough bone marrow to lower the gauge on the machine enough to deactivate the contraption. Although it sounds a little convoluted, sawing through the leg has the same primal, visceral feel to it as the classic sawing-off-your-foot in the original Saw. It’s deeply uncomfortable to watch, and the addition of seeing the bone marrow is rather vomit-inducing. Thus, exactly what we want from a Saw trap! We also see every part of this trap, since Valentina gets so close to escaping, but is just out of time.

1. Blood-boarding: Last but certainly not least is the trap intended for Cecilia (and, we can assume, Parker). Instead, Kramer himself and Carlos get put in it. Their heads are chained to a horizontal metal platform that rises as they get water-boarded by taps gushing blood above their faces. After a certain point, they can pull a lever that causes their side of the see-saw (get it?) to descend and for them to get the entirety of the blood-boarding, freeing the other participant. We don’t see this trap to completion, but it’s essentially a question of self-sacrifice, as it would result in one person’s death and the other’s survival. Kramer and Carlos are freed by the trip wire that Cecilia and Parker activate upon stepping into the office, which implies Kramer planned to be in that trap the whole time. It leaves us with the intriguing question: who exactly was that trap meant for? Cecilia and Parker make sense as a test of whether or not they care enough to actually sacrifice themself for their partner, but that further implies Kramer accounting for Parker to show up, which it seems he did by purposely leaving the phone in the room earlier on in the film. But it is a risk. Carlos obviously wasn’t supposed to be involved, so that leads me to believe it was Kramer and Amanda due to the safety net of the shackles releasing, as they would have been able to ensure each other’s survival. Regardless, it’s a bold and aesthetically fascinating trap that leaves the audience guessing. 10/10 from me.

These traps were extremely gory and visceral, perhaps some of the most brutal of all of the Saw films, but they didn’t at any point feel particularly gratuitous to me. Torture porn such as this relies on an element of voyeurism and audience disgust, which this certainly achieved, but at no point did I actively think, “This is unnecessary”. The traps were relevant to the situation, being purposefully ironic (making fake doctors essentially perform surgery on themselves). Even aside from this, it was just thoroughly entertaining.

In addition, the aesthetic of Saw X was strong and felt very much in line with the original run of Saw films. Kevin Greutert, director of Saw VI and Saw 3D and editor of even more of the Saw films, was in the director’s chair again for this one, and it certainly shows. From the yellow-green-blue lighting to the ramshackle warehouses, the visuals were consistent and reflective of the grimy, disgusting, nasty feel that makes Saw Saw. Even the wacky, chaotic editing was back to an extent! It felt like Greutert, and co-writers Peter Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg all collectively paid tribute to the franchise as a whole, and poured a lot of passion and fun into Saw X

John Kramer and Amanda standing in the warehouse where the game is afoot

It’s clear to see I had a hell of a lot of fun watching Saw X. My main takeaway from the film was that it really honed in on not taking itself too seriously, and leaned into poking fun at itself in the most enjoyable way. A great example of this is Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) making a cameo in the post-end credits scene as a nice nod to an original character. It wasn’t overly silly and goofy to the point where it detracted from the plot, but it also didn’t attempt to be super clever or gritty. It felt aware of its place as the tenth Saw film, way down the line, and toed that line perfectly. I’d call that…epic good luck.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Written by Robin Moon

Robin writes for 25YL and Horror Obsessive as much as their scattered brain will allow. They love dark fantasy, sci fi, and most things horror-related, with a huge soft spot for vampires. Don't make the mistake of mentioning Buffy around them or they won't shut up about it. Seriously. They're also a fiction writer and aspiring filmmaker; in other words, they much prefer spending time in made-up places and far-off universes than in the real world.

C. Auguste Dupin gazes upon Roderick Usher's childhood home.

The Fall of the House of Usher: An Ambitious and Engrossing Distillation of Poe’s Work

David Pareja as Jesús in The Coffee Table

Sitting Down at the Coffee Table With Writer and Director Caye Casas