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It Comes Closer to Being a Real Movie

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It Comes Closer to Being a Real Movie

The “Saw” films have always been rightfully tagged as torture porn, but they come on as flesh-ripping morality plays. Each victim, strapped into his or her loopy-ingenious electro-medieval Rube Goldberg slicer-dicer-chopper-gouger, is being put through the agonies of the damned only because of some sin that he or she committed in the real world. The whole concept of sin, articulated this heavily, is more than a little corny (that’s one reason I think the seven-deadly-sins premise of David Fincher’s “Se7en” is that film’s most rickety dimension, rather than its most dramatic), but there’s no denying that in the “Saw” movies the concept serves a canny purpose.

The most interesting idea in the “Saw” films, stated over and over by that wizened high priest of sick violence John Kramer, a.k.a. Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), is that he isn’t actually killing anyone. He’s just giving people choices. (Choose to have your fingers pulled out of their sockets…or die.) It’s an idea that links up to what’s going on in the audience. A “Saw” movie is structured so that we identity with the victims; the shuddery thrill is in sitting there thinking, “Thank God it’s not me! (although it could be).” Yet by watching a “Saw” movie, we too subject ourselves to a kind of (vicarious) torture. We’re making the choice to watch this insane sadistic pulp and experience it as a kick. We’re the torture-porn addicts. You might say that we’re giving ourselves the entertainment we deserve.

The last “Saw” film, “Spiral” (2021), saw the series running on fumes, creatively and at the box office. (Its $23 million domestic gross was a series low.) So the gurus of the franchise got together and made a clear decision that something had to be done to inject new lifeblood into the wheezy old contraption. They came up with a solution that, in theory, sounds good: “Saw X,” the 10th entry in the now two-decade-old series, comes closer than most of the “Saw” films to being an actual movie.

You could see that as good thing or a not so good thing. It lends the plot and locale an organic unity. And John Kramer, who is now suffering from terminal brain cancer, is so front and center that Tobin Bell has never given such a full-scale performance as the human behind Jigsaw. Bell is 81 now, and in “Saw X” he’s like Clint Eastwood crossed with Father Merrin from “The Exorcist.” Kramer is like a grizzled sheriff who has come to exorcise your demons. He’s making you suffer, but only to free your soul.

Kramer has been given a prognosis of just months to live. But then a member of his cancer-patient support group tips him to a Norwegian physician who is working on a treatment that involves surgery and an experimental drug cocktail. Kramer flies down to Mexico to receive the special treatment. Why Mexico? It all has to happen in secret, he’s told, because big pharma, its chemo profits threatened, wants to shut the treatment down. Kramer gets the brain surgery (during which he’s awake — how “Saw”-like!) and takes the drugs, and his hemoglobin snaps back to normal. It looks, for a moment, like he’s cured. For a while, I assumed that “Saw X” was going to be a movie in which Kramer makes the leaders of big pharma pay for their sins — and that might have been more fascinating than what actually happens.

What follows is a spoiler (though it’s the premise of the movie), so be warned. It turns out that the miracle healers, led by the smiling blonde Cecilia (Synnøve Macody Lund), are quacks. It was all a scam, and Kramer is not cured. He is therefore going to have his vengeance. Excuse me, I mean he’s going to teach some lessons, by giving a handful of people the choices they deserve. Like, for instance, the first victim, who is given the choice of whether she wants to wire-saw through her own leg (just like what the femme-fatale heroine does at the end of “Audition,” only worse since she’s doing it to herself), and then, once the leg is lopped off, whether she wants to use a syringe to reach in and extract her own bone marrow…either that, or a razor wire will slice through her neck. Ah, sweet moral ambiguity.

Three of the four victims are Cecilia’s Mexican helpers, and they’ve all been gathered in the same torture warehouse. Kramer and Amanda (Shawnee Smith), his apprentice in pain administration (she has been in every “Saw” film except “Spiral”), are overseeing it all from the second-floor office window, and this rather claustrophobic setup puts the film squarely in the genre of pressure-cooker kidnap thrillers. The downside of “Saw X” seeming more like a real movie than many of the films in the series is that there’s more talking and less torturing; I personally approve of that ratio, though I’m not sure it will pay off at the box office. The torture set pieces in the “Saw” films are lavish gifts of baroque horror presented to the audience. They are, quite simply, the reason we came. Tobin Bell, with his stare of pitiless wisdom, is also a draw, but “Saw X” raises the issue of how much of John Kramer’s hand-wringing is too much. In the eyes of a lot of “Saw” fans, hand-wringing < hands cut off with mechanized garden shears.

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