By Sarah Osman
Spiral is content to be a satisfying thriller that mechanically delivers as its murderous pace picks up.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman.
Could anyone have predicted that the indie horror flick Saw, first released in 2004, would have spawned multiple sequels and turned into its own franchise, complete with a baffling mythos that flummoxes even the most diehard Saw fans? Early on, before multiple accomplices popped up and traps morphed into medieval torture devices, Saw succeeded as an intriguing mystery that put a new twist on the slasher genre: Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) crafted “games” for his victims that they could escape — but only if they horribly mutilated themselves or another person. In Jigsaw’s warped mind, he wasn’t murdering anyone — his victims could choose to go free. Because he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Jigsaw believes that, by forcing people to face death, they would become more appreciative of life. As the films went on, they began to drift away from that initial insane idea, even going so far as to supply social commentary, politics by way of revenge drama. For example, the sixth Saw made evil health insurance executives face their own death traps.
Saw returned in 2017 with the bland Jigsaw, so many assumed that Jigsaw had finally hung up his pig mask. Until Chris Rock decided he would star in and help write yet another Saw sequel: Spiral: From the Book of Saw. Unlike the eighth Saw, Spiral sets up a story line that doesn’t connect back to earlier films — but it takes place in the Saw-verse. So, was this trip necessary? Well, the film has its problems, but it’s an improvement over the last few Saw movies. Followers of the franchise will be pleased by this new chapter. The casual horror fan not so much.
Spiral reaches back to the original Saw. It is less an exercise in torture porn and far more of a fetid mystery. The film opens with off-duty cop Marv Boswick (Daniel Petronijevic) chasing after a perp into a sewer. He is attacked by a masked man in a pig mask, and then finds himself tied up on a subway track by his tongue. Another pig-masked stranger appears on a TV in front of the cop and informs him that, because he is crooked (he lied on the witness stand multiple times, sending many innocent people to jail) he must be punished. He will have to rip his tongue out before a train hits him. Boswick fails (in a spectacularly bloody scene) and now a game is afoot: there’s a new Jigsaw copycat, and this time he’s targeting cops.
Enter Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock), a tough detective who is hated by the force because he turned in a corrupt cop. He doesn’t play by the rules and he works alone. We see him get into a verbal fight with the police chief Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols). Banks is your stereotypical “Dirty Harry” detective, and his scenes with Nichols are unintentionally hilarious. Their banter is a rip-off of the chatter heard in every CBS police drama over the past 20 years. (But then nobody goes to Saw for clever and witty dialogue.) Tired of the rebel’s bullshit, Garza forces a rookie partner on Banks — Detective William Schenk (Max Minghella), whose persona is just as ridiculously wide-eyed as Banks’s and Garza’s are glum.
Just as no one goes to Saw films for their repartee, neither are they known for creating deep and nuanced characters. People were introduced into the story only to be killed by a trap five minutes later. Ongoing feuds are never fully explained. The only complex (sort of) character was Jigsaw himself. Thus Spiral offered an opportunity to create characters in the Saw-verse that we knew enough about to care about. But, just like its predecessors, Spiral is not designed to include much humanity. It’s content to be a thriller that mechanically delivers as its murderous pace picks up.
Spiral becomes more suspenseful as Banks deals with the aftermath of Boswick’s demise. The man was his only friend on the force. And there is Banks’s strained relationship with his father, Marcus Banks, (Samuel L. Jackson), who was the former chief of police. Back at the station, Banks begins to receive notes and “gifts” from the copycat that arrive in politely wrapped Tiffany-esque boxes (a welcome humorous touch). Garza decides to make Banks the lead detective on the Boswick case (much to the chagrin of his coworkers). But then another crooked cop shows up dead (he was trigger happy, so he has to sacrifice — you guessed it — his fingers). The sadistic run-and-cut continues from there, as more rotten cops are taken out, leading to the film’s grand finale.
Similar to the first Saw, Spiral tries to walk a taut tightrope between full-fledged horror and a tight procedural. The traps are as gruesome as ever (albeit more realistic). And, in their vigilante way, they feel warranted — it’s hard to have much sympathy for straight-up murderers. The film’s rhythm quickens, and that leads to more jump scares and gut-wrenching moments. Fans of Saw‘s devilishly demented traps will not be disappointed — truckloads of fake blood and guts are dumped.
It’s clear that Spiral is a criticism of the police, and that is rather timely considering current events in law enforcement. The Jigsaw copycat believes that removing a corrupt police force will mean the entire system will be reformed and innocent citizens protected. Jigsaw considered his diseased ideas to be noble, and so does the Jigsaw copycat. Given the cartoonishness of the proceedings, it is unclear what the film is trying to say about police brutality. What’s more, race hasn’t been taken into consideration and that is a rather odd choice given that the leads are all BIPOC. Unlike Get Out, whose satiric themes and subversive symbolism were clear, Spiral comes off as confused, which is a shame because of the relevance of the topic.
Considering the stale state of the last few Saw sequels, Spiral suggests a fresh new direction. The plot is coherent, the action is consistent, and the traps look as if they were designed by a normal human being rather than a maniacal film studio. The ending sets up a sequel, and we can hope that it takes a deeper dive into the mounting corruption and injustice in our institutions. For now, Spiral delivers the usual cuts: blood, suspense, and a hellishly warped ending.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Young Hollywood and High Voltage Magazine. She will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences under the Trump Era.