Going Around in Circles – Spiral: From the Book of Saw

Going into this review, I need to make one thing perfectly clear. I have not seen the entire Saw series leading up to this point. I’ve seen the original, which I actually rank among my all-time favorite horror movies. I enjoyed Cary Elwes’ performance, I liked the central conceit of giving bad people a chance at life as long as they go through a crucible of pain as penance, and while I guessed at Jigsaw’s identity, that reveal at the end was so expertly executed that it set a new standard for low budget horror. Apart from that, until now I have only seen Saw III, which my roommate and I watched one Halloween night in a packed theatre with friends on one of those rare days where we all had the night off. It was mindless popcorn fun, and it filled me in on the details I needed from not having seen Saw II.

After that, I’ve ignored the remainder of the series, so I apologize in advance if I miss something in the overall lore, or praise/complain about something that’s been covered in some random sequel I don’t know about. Also, for what it’s worth, I’m not that big of a fan of torture porn. It has its moments, certainly, but on the whole, I don’t care for it. I’ll try not to let that color the overall review, but there are points in this film where my core issue with the subgenre comes into play.

So with all that said, why would I even bother to watch Spiral? First of all, this installment has some real star power, with the likes of Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson leading the way. The original film had Cary Elwes and Danny Glover, but apart from that, who’s the biggest name in this series other than Tobin Bell as Jigsaw himself? Donnie Wahlberg? Shawnee Smith? Mark Rolston? Callum Keith Rennie? I’m not saying these people aren’t talented, but they’re far from A-listers. True superstars putting themselves out there for even the most middling of franchise fare helps to lend credibility, enough to at least entice me into the theatre when I’m bored on a Thursday evening.

Second, like Danny McBride’s take on Halloween, when a celebrity fan puts their money and effort behind such a project, you can tell there will be care taken to at least make sure it looks good. The final product won’t necessarily be great, but you know they’re not going to half-ass it. Chris Rock is a longtime fan of the series, and wanted to branch out into horror, so in addition to starring, he served in an Executive Producer role and polished the script so that he could tell the story he wanted to tell. That’s at least worthy of a look, if not outright appreciation.

So after all that, how did the movie turn out? Is it a new direction and rebirth of the franchise? Is it a cheesy parody of itself? Is there a point to any of it?

The answer is… it’s alright. It’s not high art by any means, but I was entertained, and there are some creative ideas worth exploring. There are also some genre traps the film can’t escape – much like its victims – and the resolution kind of falls apart under minimal scrutiny, but again, I’ll admit, I had fun.

Rock stars as Zeke Banks, a detective in a nebulous “metro” police department (the city is never named, though the bulk of filming took place in Toronto). He’s the son of the former chief, Marcus Banks (Jackson), and is considered a pariah because he turned in his old partner (Patrick McManus), a dirty cop who killed a witness before he could testify. After being assigned a new partner, William Schenk (Max Minghella), Banks is taunted by a Jigsaw copycat killer who has taken out a corrupt detective.

This is a really interesting conflict to ground the film. Jigsaw’s M.O. (as far as I’m aware), is to target people who’ve committed public wrongs, and corrupt policing is a hot button issue at the moment (and was while the film was being made in 2019; the film was originally scheduled to be released a year ago, right when George Floyd was murdered). Part of that issue is the inherent veil of protection cops have for one another.

That’s why Banks is mocked and mistrusted to begin with. He violated the cardinal unwritten rule, which is to not rat on another cop. Protect the shield and all that. So Spiral immediately creates a relevant dilemma. If the killer is only going for dirty cops, how do you reconcile that internally? What wins out in the investigation, the desire to catch the bad guy or the hatred towards the one who broke the code? The underlying concept also serves the purpose of basically making everyone a believable suspect, which is essential for a good mystery or thriller.

The film is also careful to avoid making race a core tenet of the proceedings. It’s certainly a salient aspect of the overall problem of policing, but it’s clear the filmmakers didn’t want this movie to fully devolve into being gratuitous. Having Rock be persona non grata in the department but his father being a lauded hero and the bar by which other cops are judged introduces a surprising amount of nuance to the subject. The last thing you want in a movie like this is for it to be preachy. There’s a time and a place, but this is clearly meant to be genre escapism, so going for too easy of a target can pull you straight out of the experience. So kudos to the filmmakers for remaining cognizant of this throughout the proceedings.

The performances here are pretty strong as well. You can tell Chris Rock is having an absolute blast, both as a serious protagonist, and because he gets to vamp and workshop some new material. For example, he’s introduced as a character during an unrelated undercover operation, where he basically riffs on Forrest Gump for two minutes. It’s genuinely funny stuff, and since we’re not trying for even a second to pretend that Rock isn’t just Rock, it helps to draw the audience in and just let them enjoy the ride. Jackson and Minghella, as well as Marisol Nichols playing the stereotypical ball-busting captain, all have some pretty decent moments, too.

And then of course, there are the kills. They’re just as gory as ever, and because Spiral, like Jigsaw, targets what he perceives to be the bad guys, there’s a catharsis to their graphic ends. If there’s a major flaw with them, it’s that they’re too quick and would seemingly violate Jigsaw’s rules. Again, I’ve only seen two of the first three films until now, so I don’t know how the series has changed over the years, but in the ones I’ve seen, there is supposed to be a legitimate chance for the targets to escape not only with their lives, but some sort of quality of life. In the original, yes, Cary Elwes eventually cuts off his own foot, but Jigsaw reveals there was a key that could have let both men in the room go free unscathed if they had worked together (had it not gone down the drain in the opening seconds, of course). And in the third film, Shawnee Smith’s character, revealed as a sort of disciple of Jigsaw, is punished/killed because she built “games” that weren’t fair, like forcing a detective to put her hand in acid to retrieve a key that would have freed her from her contraption, only it was designed not to work, so the target had no actual chance of survival.

Here, the killer doesn’t really give any of the victims a realistic option, because even if they survive, they’ll be so horribly maimed that they’ll probably wish for death for the rest of their lives. Some of the puzzles have a poetic justice built into them (the first victim, a cop who constantly lied under oath to get convictions of innocent defendants, has to allow his tongue to be cut out to escape, for instance), but the contraptions are designed to essentially destroy their lives by destroying their bodies, even if they end up maintaining their mortal coil. One has to lose a tongue. Another, their fingers. A third has to literally turn themselves into a quadriplegic in order to not die. I mean, in a vacuum, yes, it’s better to be alive than dead. But if the cost is permanent paralysis from the neck down, would most people in that situation really see a difference, or a point to trying?

Further, while the older games had plenty of time for the victim to work out how to solve the puzzle, here Spiral basically only gives them a minute or two to process everything that’s happened to them, and to voluntarily eviscerate themselves in order to live, which most of us could just not mentally do. It’s clear once the killer is revealed that the intent was always for them to die, so I get it, but at the same time, that violates the spirit of what Jigsaw was going for, at least in the early films. Here it’s just subjecting the target to several moments of excruciating pain before death, which sort of defeats the purpose. If you wanted them dead, you could have just killed them at any time, and if you have the ingenuity that our killer has here, you could find a way to not leave evidence and just get away with it clean. That’s where the film comes ever so close to being gratuitous. If it’s just overkill for the sake of overkill (and that jerky spin shot the series likes to do), why bother?

Remember when I said that I had a core issue with torture porn that would inform part of this review? This is what I’m talking about. It’s one thing to torture someone for information or as punishment, but there has to be a reason for it. If all you’re going to do is kill the guy anyway, just kill him. Don’t waste the effort if there’s no payoff other than death, because no matter how much pain you cause, if they die, the pain ends, and you’ve accomplished nothing you couldn’t have done with a gun in two seconds. Now, that said, the kills do look cool, and the last two actually do have a point to the torture, so the film makes clear that Spiral has the capability of critical thought. Sadly, that actually makes the other kills feel even more ineffectual.

The overall story is fun in the moment, but once you stop for two seconds to think about it, it really doesn’t make much sense. Why gives Banks undercover assignments if the department doesn’t trust him? Why send officers who would out him to respond to an operation he’s doing? Why give him a partner if he’s considered a bad influence and a cop who doesn’t “play ball”? Why would anybody investigating a Jigsaw-like case (of which they’re all aware once the first victim pops up) ever go anywhere to look into a lead ALONE?! Why would an ex-cop, especially one that went to prison, still have login credentials at the police station? Why would no one flag that when someone tried to login under said credentials? How did the killer even know where the first victim would be, and that he would pursue unto his death for something as petty as a stolen purse?

More importantly, the actual investigation into Spiral doesn’t ever really seem to advance. While there are scenes to set up the framework of an actual detective story, the plot basically boils down to four elements: Spiral kills someone, he taunts Banks until they discover the body and/or video of the kill, talky exposition scene that rehashes the same grievances and themes in Banks’ life versus Schenk’s, and the next bit of cannon fodder puts themselves into their own death situation. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Suffice to say, there is a LOT of stupid shit for a movie that tries to come off smarter than the room. But again, there’s enough positive stuff that while you’re in the moment, it doesn’t bog things down too much. It’s clear that a good deal of care was taken to have this be something more than just another entry in a series that wore out its welcome a decade ago. There’s enough to recommend, but you don’t have to go out of your way unless you really want to. Somewhat ironically, as the world keeps up its pace returning to normal, this feels like the type of film you would watch, not in a theatre, but on a “Scary Movie Night” party with your friends in your house. See who can still eat – or eats with increased fury – during the gorier parts. It should lead to some fun conversations.

Grade: B-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you a fan of this series, and have I royally fucked up analyzing it? Do you think Chris Rock has a future in horror? Let me know!

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