The best thing the Saw franchise could do is step away from its tangled present-day continuity. Thankfully, this is what Saw X does. Saw VI and Saw 3D director Kevin Greutert returns to helm the tenth bloodthirsty entry, which is a direct sequel to James Wan's original (it's Saw 1.5 if we're being literal). The rare Saw film that heavily focuses on Tobin Bell's iconic Jigsaw, Saw X borrows a page from Don't Breathe 2 by making Jigsaw the "hero" — a trick they end up executing cleanly enough to make this one of the better Saw movies in Lionsgate’s hit-or-miss gore-a-torium franchise.
Penned by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger in their third straight Saw entry, Saw X tells the tale of John Kramer's border-crossing Mexican visit in search of a miracle cure for his brain cancer. He reaches out to Cecilia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund), the daughter of a renowned physician who promises his patented combination of drug cocktail and surgery can cure any fatal diagnosis. John boards a plane, forks over an exorbitant amount, and goes under the knife — only to find out it's all a scam. Unfortunately, Cecilia defrauded the wrong moralistic civil engineer with a penchant for testing corrupt individuals with either salvation-providing or death-dealing contraptions.
Greutert's ability to elevate the most engaging Saw narratives is duplicated from Saw VI to Saw X (the health insurance one is super underrated). Less victims, more attempted justification behind Jigsaw's actions. It's a protest against the notion that Saw movies are all slaughterhouse appeal with no reason, fending off "torture porn" labels that misunderstand how entries like Saw X are valuable dissection of moral ownership. Stolberg and Goldfinger find John wrongfully duped in a bleak moment of vulnerability, removing the villainous cloak from an otherwise behind-the-camera gamemaster with seemingly no remorse. However, there's a strangeness to John's persona as it softens in this early-timeline entry, despite his wickedness displayed in "later" entries.
Saw X is the longest Saw film at almost two hours, but it's more of a bug than a feature. Lulls between traps can linger as John undergoes Cecilia's phony treatment, rallies the troops (welcome back, Amanda), and architects another gallery of mutilation. There's suspicious introspection as John prattles through dialogue about how he's not a killer — cleverly contrasted by Cecilia's searing digs at the mastermind's hypocrisy — but the pace isn't as surging as prior tales. There's a breath of fresh air to the straightforward and slyly poignant story itself, although it drags in a way that more frequently violent Saw films avoid.
The kills themselves are Saw-approved when enacted, as John's fraudulent nurses, anesthesiologists, and surgeons confront their wrongdoings. Greutert oversees disgustingly excessive deaths tied to medical usages, be they bone marrow extractors with drip, nauseating viscous sludge, or a high-powered radiation cannon that blisters skin dark-and-crispy. You can tell Saw X isn't the most expensive based on the minimalism in some aspects — there's nothing complicated and everything upsetting about a woman sawing into her thigh meat with Leonardo Gigli's primitive wire cutter — but the gore we get executed is on high. Maybe the outro trap that wraps Saw X could have been more deliciously intricate? No bother, diehard Saw fans will lap up the graphic tests of will that John encourages.
Kudos to Tobin Bell for delivering the spotlight John-Kramer-slash-Jigsaw performance he's earned over so many sequels. Bell's performance humanizes John Kramer in a wholly relatable way, skirting the ultimate classification of Jigsaw as a horror villain. John is portrayed as a morally complex agent of consequence-bred chaos — but in an oddly empathetic Robin Hood arc where he's slaying the rich and giving to the poor. Not to overlook Shawnee Smith as fan-favorite Amanda, John's right hand who herself is offered performative redemption as a sidekick who challenges John as an equal, minus festering frustrations. Another standout is the nefariously unrattled Synnøve Macody Lund as John's corrupt adversary.
Saw X wipes away the mucky complication of a franchise constantly befuddling its audiences to deliver an engaging assessment of John Kramer the man, the massacre pusher, and the messiah. It's putting story first and dismemberment charms second, which the franchise needs after becoming what plays like a gruesome Halloween Horror Nights maze. It's maybe too streamlined for its lengthier duration — we know where Saw X is going, yet it takes the scenic route — but at the end of the day, fulfills the fleshy requirements of a Saw entry. Saw movie's gonna Saw — Saw X is just a cut above.