Written by: Josh Stolberg, Pete Goldfinger
Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman
Starring: Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, and Max Minghella
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"You wanna play games, motherfucker?"
Over the course of seven films, the Saw franchise accomplished something quite rare for a horror series: its own mythology became the star. In a genre that’s populated by monsters and madmen who become the iconic faces of franchises who largely have new, ghoulish exploits with each outing, Saw stood apart in telling one long, sustained narrative with its new entries. While Tobin Bell’s John Kramer (aka Jigsaw) became iconic himself, the series was never preoccupied with scripting a new batch of fresh, standalone carnage for him, especially when it had the temerity to kill him off in the third outing, a pivotal turning point that allowed Saw to sprawl into a twisted, tangled web of intricate continuity.
Contrary to some opinions at the time, hardcore fans didn’t keep turning out because they craved bloodshed; rather, the series unfolded with the page-turning verve of a serial novel, complete with twists, turns, and dangling cliffhangers. At a certain point, Saw became a barbed-wire ouroboros, a blood-soaked perpetual motion machine that endured to embellish its own mythology. Every Saw movie became about Saw, in a sense, to the point where its signature twists felt satisfying only when they advanced the larger arc in some significant fashion.
By finally closing the loop in this knotted thread with The Final Chapter, Saw also stumbled into a conundrum it would inevitably have to face since we all know that finality and horror franchises is a dance where both the filmmakers and the audience are winking at each other. What happens when such an insular, narrative-driven affair like Saw goes dormant for years and can no longer lean on the mythology that defined it? Jigsaw tried to answer that question a few years ago and did so in the most obvious fashion by doubling down and resorting to some old tricks in adding another layer to an already dense mythology. It was fine if not a little lackluster since it was also trying to appease newcomers who may not have been as intimately familiar with the story’s wild twists and turns. Longtime fans like myself were at least happy to have the franchise back, especially since it didn’t stray too far from the confines of what you expect from a Saw movie, but there was the nagging feeling of watching a band reunite only to reissue a tepid Greatest Hits retread. There was nothing especially vital about Jigsaw, and its additions to the mythos were largely inconsequential, if not ridiculous even by this franchise’s standards. At a certain point, the presence of new, super secret apprentices becomes laughable. Jigsaw provided a clean slate, only for its filmmakers to only half-heartedly embrace it by moving familiar pieces back into place.
As its title suggests, Spiral: From the Book of Saw doesn’t have this problem. Despite having franchise veteran Darren Lynn Bousman back at the helm, it represents the most stark departure this series has ever seen because it’s the first Saw sequel that isn’t enamored with being a Saw sequel. It has almost no interest in the complex mythology of previous entries, using it instead as a launching point for an entirely different experience. Such a fate is also inevitable for horror franchises looking to shake the doldrums, which is to say Spiral is the Halloween III or Jason Goes to Hell of this franchise: the obvious outlier that’s either refreshing or alienating, depending on your persuasion. For this longtime fan, it’s more of the former: even though I have some reservations about the particulars, Spiral feels like the bold step this franchise needed to take in order to endure beyond its obsession with its own mythology.
The opening sequence does feel familiar enough, as detective Bozwick (Dan Petronijevic) chases a culprit down into a subway tunnel, where he’s abducted and subjected to a demented game. Our new mysterious killer—with his own, distinct new voice—establishes the twisted rules: because this cop has used his tongue to railroad suspects with lies in court, he’ll have to sever it in order to survive being smashed by an oncoming subway train. Everything you expect from a Saw prologue falls into place: frenetic camerawork, a nerve-shredding Charlie Clouser score, jagged editing, and splattered limbs. It’s fair to wonder if Spiral will be much of a departure after all.
But the next scene leaves no doubt when star Chris Rock takes center stage as Zeke Banks, an undercover detective in the middle of busting a drug ring. Before barging into an adjacent hotel room on the sting, he riffs about Forrest Gump with material that sounds like it could be from one of Rock’s stand-up routines. A rap song kicks in as Zeke dons a mask with the oblivious cronies he’s trying to ensnare in a moment that announces this won’t be your usual Saw movie. This only becomes more obvious the next day, when Zeke and his new partner (Max Minghella) investigate Bozwick’s death and quickly discover it’s the first in a new round of games from the latest Jigsaw killer. Whoever it is wants Zeke as the lead investigator, as they personally mail him foreboding pieces of evidence and clues to kick off a Saw movie unlike any other.
I say this mostly because Spiral is the first Saw movie without a central game. Imagine if the first film had primarily followed Detective Tapp’s investigation instead of Lawrence and Adam’s game driving the action, and you have some idea of what you’re in for. Intertwining a police procedural into the mayhem is old hat for a Saw movie (which makes Zeke’s insistence that Jigsaw didn’t target cops laughable), but this is the first one that foregrounds the investigation and treats the various traps as a matter of incident to propel the story forward. Spiral is less a Saw sequel and more of a grungy cop movie set in the franchise’s universe, kind of like if Brian Thompson’s slasher in Cobra had been taking inspiration from a more famous serial killer. It’s Saw stripped back down to its bare essence: a whodunnit with no concerns about other moving pieces that need to be locked into the larger franchise arc.
In fact, this one basically broadcasts to the audience that they need not worry about previous entries. During the investigation, the cops name-drop John Kramer a few times, and we get a glimpse of his picture in an old newspaper, but otherwise you only need to know his M.O. involving gruesome traps and the twisted morality accompanying them. There’s an argument to be made that Spiral feels like it could have been a completely new film that’s been retrofitted into being a Saw film (which wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened on Bousman’s watch). However, we know that’s not the case because it’s actually the brainchild of Rock himself, a longtime Saw fan who pitched his idea to Lionsgate following Jigsaw, offering a fresh approach to take the franchise in a new direction.
Bousman obliges, staging a Saw film that looks more visually refined and sleek that previous entries, particularly his own entries, which were so instrumental in establishing the grungy, grimy house style. A less ambitious director may have been content to resort to an old bag of tricks to deliver a nostalgic rendition of an old favorite, but Bousman’s having none of that. Spiral is the most naturalistic Saw movie to date, far removed from the insular, claustrophobic style that defined a series that rarely even featured exterior establishing shots of its cityscape (I want to say that this didn’t happen until the seventh film—at any rate, it’s still jarring whenever you see brightly-lit exteriors in a Saw movie). With the exception of the expected stylistic flourishes (which seem restrained themselves), Spiral is fairly measured, full of prowling camerawork and evocative lighting that nod towards the franchise’s giallo roots, if ever so slightly. It’s less an exercise in abrasive grunginess and more like a cold sweat of a movie.
But Spiral does also dip into the franchise well, mostly with a sprawling narrative that frequently flashes back to a crucial incident earlier in Zeke’s career, when he turned in a crooked cop for shooting a witness in cold blood. The present day carnage unfolds in the shadow of an ordeal that made Zeke a precinct pariah as it ensnared his own father (Samuel L. Jackson), himself a respected captain, and his newest boss (Marisol Nichols). As these pieces fall into place, it not only brings into focus the killer’s motivation, but it reveals the crucial hook that gives Spiral a timely vitality: here’s a Saw sequel that’s once again dedicated to exposing and punishing police corruption, a notion that resonates now even more than it did back when Jigsaw told us all cops are bastards back in 2005. Spiral’s delay amidst the turmoil of police violence in the past year makes it a movie of the moment much in the same way Saw VI was back in 2009, when it mused upon the corrupt, galling American healthcare system (12 years later, it’s even more depressing that a guy nicknamed The Jigsaw Killer in a fictional horror story has a more cogent healthcare policy than the “most prosperous” country on the planet).
This makes Spiral the best entry since that film as well, and it does what Jigsaw couldn’t in finding a reason to exist beyond simply being another Saw movie. Because it’s not preoccupied with just being a Saw sequel, it accomplishes what the franchise’s best films have always done by intertwining Jigsaw’s warped philosophy into its mayhem, all without losing sight of the characters. The traps themselves are mostly dialed back down to a less elaborate wavelength but are no less excruciating to watch as victims have their extremities mutilated and their faces scalded with hot wax. Saw always prided itself on its cringe-inducing violence (probably to its own detriment since so many people dismissed it as “torture porn” just from seeing the marketing), and Spiral delivers the ghastly goods, serving up mangled pounds of flesh as the killer poetically moralizes (albeit less effectively because the new Jigsaw voice doesn’t have the eerie menace of the real deal).
And with the likes of Rock and Jackson at the helm, Spiral evokes the franchise’s early days, when notable performers crafted memorable characters that became the center of the series. To this day, I recall first being intrigued by the original Saw because it starred Danny Glover, so it’s nice to come full circle to a certain extent by having Rock craft a compelling lead character that brings some meaning to both the mayhem and the thematic subtext. He’s been stepping out of his comfort zone in recent years, and Spiral allows him to stretch his dramatic chops while retaining his humor, even if the latter understandably slips away down the stretch here. Zeke belongs in the pantheon of great Saw characters who carry their movie and give you something to care about beyond the gore and narrative gymnastics.
That’s especially crucial in the latter case here, since Spiral doesn’t quite reach the hair-raising heights of its predecessors in bringing all of its pieces together. It’s a little frustrating because all of the pieces are there—compelling characters, an intriguing backstory, plenty of subtext to chew on—but they all just kind of limply fall into place, mostly because this is the most predictable Saw entry yet. Among everything else the franchise became famous for, the signature twists might be the most sacrosanct: you never want to be able to easily guess the central mystery of a Saw movie halfway through, yet Spiral’s is so obvious despite the numerous red herrings floating around to throw you off the scent. In keeping with the franchise tradition, the big reveal is accompanied by a montage that sews everything together, revealing not only the killer but also his motivation, which is also easily guessed at, so it falls more flat than it does in previous installments.
Some tension does remain when the climactic game hinges on two survivors having to make an impossible choice with mysterious consequences that unfold over the last couple of minutes. But even this only muddies the water since one of the killer’s underlying motivations—itself admittedly clever—gets thrown into question, leaving you wondering what they really were hoping to accomplish. They feign at having higher ideals, as John Kramer once did, but the truth feels a little more mundane and banal, especially since it dilutes whatever powerful message Spiral might have about police corruption. Ultimately, it doesn’t have much to say at all since it shies away from the conversation’s obvious racial dimension and the complexities and hypocrisy of its protagonist. Zeke insists he’s the one virtuous apple in a rotten barrel, yet he resorts to torture and extralegal measures, brutal means to justify his own ends—and somehow the film doesn’t reckon with this, choosing instead to reduce the killer’s motivation to the stuff of personal revenge. It feels less like they want to take down all cops and more like they want to take down these specific cops that ruined their life.
During the climax of a Saw movie, I want to feel goosebumps as “Hello Zepp” kicks in and story reveals unforeseen twists and turns. I want to feel like I’ve left a magic show, having been tricked by the very things that were right there in front of my eyes. With the older sequels especially, I wanted to be wowed by the lengths these revelations would go to connect previous entries together, something that’s not possible this time out considering how tenuous its connection is to the mythology. You might be tempted to see its reluctance to acknowledge previous entries as a red herring itself, but there’s no eureka moment where Spiral finds a clever way to connect itself beyond simply featuring a Jigsaw copycat.
And I get that, really, I do—asking this movie to be a standard Saw IX a decade after The Final Chapter (and in the wake of the forgettable Jigsaw) would have been a fool’s errand. There’s just something within me that instinctively longs for it, almost as if the mythology has become a phantom limb. It’s gone, but the ghosts of that tangled web linger, and the absence of Tobin Bell especially is tough to shake. Killing off Jigsaw continues to be the most daring and crippling choice this franchise has made because the films just don’t feel right without Bell, yet any attempt to keep him around feels strained.
So we’re fittingly once again brought full circle since Spiral leaves me with the same questions Jigsaw did concerning the path forward for the franchise. That conundrum of continuity seems like it’s going to always haunt the franchise, and this entry doesn’t make a completely convincing case for completely abandoning it. But it does make a stronger case than its predecessor made for itself because it at least commits to going in this new direction: Spiral feels like the beginning of its own mythology rather than a half-hearted extension of a finished story, and that makes all the difference going forward. Because the other thing I want as the credits roll on a Saw movie is a sense of intrigue for what comes next. I don’t know that I ever clamored for the further exploits of Logan Nelson as Jigsaw’s latest apprentice because it reeked of just being Hoffman 2.0. And while the latest successor here also isn’t the most compelling Jigsaw wannabe, there are enough other pieces left standing that leave me wondering what a follow-up to this might look like.
With Saw movies, time always tells just how effective an entry is: for example, the much-maligned Part V became a little bit better when the entire picture surrounding it became clear (whereas, on its own, it felt like a frustrating stopgap upon release). Maybe hindsight will reveal Spiral to be the beginning of an adjustment period for the franchise, and maybe we’ll look back on it as a critical turning point where the franchise started to spin a new mythology we’ll come to embrace. Maybe Spiral will feel like growing pains, the movie that asked us to sacrifice the old continuity as a pound of flesh that had to be shed for Saw to endure. Whatever happens, I just hope the franchise continues to surprise: because even though I felt like the original was destined to become a classic the first time I saw it, I never would have expected we’d eventually have an eighth sequel starring the likes of Chris Rock and Sam Jackson. There has never quite been a horror franchise like this one, and Spiral continues that tradition, mostly in the way it’s not concerned with simply being another Saw movie— and it’s better for it.
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