For better or worse, I’m fascinated by the “Saw” movies — mesmerized by their inventively staged kills, in which victims are locked into medieval-looking contraptions and given a choice: a) hack off a limb or scramble an eyeball or b) face certain death by bear-trap helmet or ribcage-ripping metal claw; infinitely amused by the soap opera-esque narrative used to string together, and sort of justify, these sadistic games. I’ve willingly stuck it out through every movie in the horror series, so there’s no use beating around the bush: “Saw” is my kind of trash.
For all its inanities, “Saw X,” the 10th “Saw” movie, should hit the bar for the like-minded: the traps are disgusting; the plot, so self-serious its absurd (and knowingly so). And unlike the sundry sequels before it (by the third “Saw,” any pretense of ingenuity had been hacked off), this one manages to make you feel something beyond gross-out adrenaline — assuming you have affection for the franchise’s mainstays.
The first “Saw” movie, released in 2004 and written by the fresh-faced creative team of James Wan (who also directed) and Leigh Whannell, was an edgy novelty, unleashing one of the most sordid trends in Hollywood horror, so-called torture porn — an unintentional nod to the war on terror’s abused military detainees.
John Kramer, a.k.a. Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), is an avenging angel with brain cancer. He appears — like Jason or Freddie Krueger — in every edition of “Saw.” You could say he’s the franchise’s beating heart. According to his arbitrary logic (what is good and evil, anyway?), he kidnaps wrongdoers and places them in his rusty traps. Those who manage to escape often gain a new lease on life, and, bizarrely, we’re rooting for creaky old John more than any of his would-be disciples. In “Saw X,” he winkingly refers to himself as a “life coach.”
The events of Jigsaw’s latest flesh-fest are set between “Saw” and “Saw 2.” John, our ailing antihero, heads to Mexico for an experimental medical procedure that turns out to be a big fat scam. The crooks behind the swindle become his future victims. The director, Kevin Greutert, puts a surprising amount of effort into building out the arc of the betrayal John suffers, beefing up the stakes in ways that the previous, hyper-nihilistic “Saw” movies never bothered to address.
Set on the outskirts of Mexico City, the film employs a jaundiced sepia filter to signal the shift to exotic territory, and though the plot entails a white guy knocking off Latinos, the more robust setup muffles bad-faith accusations of racism — not that the film’s commentary on such matters is sophisticated; in this world of juvenile thrills, we all look the same on the inside. This “Saw” avoids the dreary political baiting of “Spiral,” the 2021 spinoff, which linked the Jigsaw killer’s moral mandate to the Black Lives Matter movement.
In any case, the biggest baddie, the swindle’s ringleader, is a coldblooded Scandinavian, Dr. Cecilia Pederson (Synnove Macody Lund), who may care less about her Spanish-speaking underlings than John himself.
The Robin to Jigsaw’s Batman, “Saw” regular Amanda (Shawnee Smith) shows up to help the boss-man with his latest stunt, kidnapping Cecilia and three of her colluders. One-by-one, each victim plays their game, punctuated by John and Amanda’s soul-baring huddle-talks, Cecilia’s pitiless scheming (one maneuver involves a rope made out of a casualty’s intestines), and, for devotees, fist-pump-inducing appearances by symbols from the extended “Saw” universe — like a puppet reminiscent of a shrunken-head Michael Jackson.
This is the most well-groomed “Saw” movie to date. The story mostly makes sense and Greutert pulls back on the frenetic editing techniques that made the older movies look like the blood and guts equivalent of white noise. Bell’s Jigsaw is the same placid psychopath we’ve come to rely on for gruesome titillation (and a few snickers) and here, he’s a little cuddly, too — just like the fans always thought he was.
Rated R for graphic torture scenes and drug abuse. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes. In theaters.