I spent most of the past February catching up with the Saw franchise with my roommate. They were already a fan, and I was finally convinced to jump aboard the ship with the announcement of this new film that we have, as well as an incredible episode of the podcast Why Are Dads? that featured interpretations of the franchise and its characters that piqued my interest. Spending so much time in the very green, nondescript City that the Sawniverse takes place in has probably rewired my brain a little bit, and while it hasn’t been a completely enjoyable journey it isn’t one that I regret. By now, you’re in or you’re out when it comes to the world (or book?) of Saw.
The franchise’s latest outing is quite distinct from the original run of seven films and even the previous spinoff Jigsaw. This one sees the return of veteran series director of the second, third, and fourth chapters: Darren Lynn Bousman, along with the two writers behind the disappointing Jigsaw. Spiral has stepped up its game in the visual department with bold cinematography that, while it doesn’t leave many lasting images apart from the traps and their aftermath, is a sharp left turn from the franchise’s previous television-level approach to camera placement. Bousman certainly brings a sound visual approach, but his demented ideas of beauty get a bit lost as well. One of my favorite pieces of Saw media is a clip from behind the scenes footage of the third film where Bousman discusses making traps look beautiful in their brutality, and you sadly won’t be getting anything like that here.
Instead, there’s a new Jigsaw copycat on the scene, specifically targeting police officers of the [REDACTED] Metro Police Department. Once the first body drops, detective Zeke Banks (producer and star Chris Rock) is put on the case with his new partner Will Schenk (Max Minghella). Zeke is also living in the shadow of his father, retired police chief Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson), who takes an interest in the killer himself. Because this entry goes back to the murder-mystery approach of the first and eighth films, a lot of what makes Saw special as a horror franchise gets lost here. There’s a very important face and name to Jigsaw, and John Kramer’s influence goes well beyond his untimely demise thanks to the story’s penchant for flashbacks and last minute retcons. Tobin Bell’s committed presence is one of the few things that kept me coming back, as he always brings a callous weight to John that simply doesn’t translate into the cryptic and riddle-filled tapes. But a new killer means no Tobin Bell and no soap opera relations between him and his many associates and disciples, so Spiral essentially has to set up a whole new era of the City on its own, even if doing so creates some odd structural problems and plot holes. This entry also comes with a whole new political edge, as this new Jigsaw is on a crusade against the police corruption that he sees as ruining the city. There’s certainly evidence for it, as the audience eventually learns, but I don’t think the movie is as clever as it thinks it is. It runs with the idea of police corruption without really addressing what killing a bunch of cops will do to solve the city’s problems. It takes the “bad apples” approach, so much so I was surprised that that phrase wasn’t used at some point in the dialogue.
What does work about Spiral, far and away, is Chris Rock. He brings an energy the likes of which have never been seen in a Saw chapter, the loudmouth detective screaming his way through almost every interaction. It’s an interesting turn for Rock, probably one that he had in mind when he pitched the new film to Lionsgate a few years back. His character also comes with a more impressionistic approach, with odd sequences going deep into his character’s psyche as he continues to lose people around him. It all culminates in a final showdown in a warehouse that feels like a classic Saw gauntlet run, complete with an homage to the first film in all of its low budget glory. And while most Saw fans know that the story is not one to stick around for, there’s one thing they do come back for: the traps. With this one, the copycat killer has their own approach to dispatching victims, that feels reminiscent of John Kramer’s classic mechanical wonders but more simplistic than what we saw in the middle entries. Also unlike those middle entries, we don’t get characters running through a series of games, which might leave some fans thirsty for more, but I didn’t mind a little restraint this time around. It makes what we get more impactful, especially in the finale.
Without Tobin Bell and without the franchise’s usual style, though, what do we have left? An odd entry with a central relationship akin to Training Day that uses police brutality as window dressing without really getting to the heart of the issue. Hell, earlier Saw movies had John Kramer preaching the same gospel about corrupt police officers, all the way back in the second film. I’m in this mess of a franchise for the even messier philosophies of its psychopathic characters and depictions of Jigsaw as a domestic terror, and even though his legacy hangs over the City, this one might as well be a soft reboot. Spiral is not the jump-start this franchise needs to make a full comeback in the 2020s, but if it keeps going, I’ll probably still check out whatever the crew comes up with next. Not the worst Saw movie or even Bousman’s worst contribution to the franchise’s canon, but I’ll still probably quit while I’m ahead by the time I get to Saw VI if I ever decide to rewatch the whole series again.
Spoilers lie ahead. Read them or leave them, the choice is yours.
As I said in the initial review, setting up a whole new cast of characters adds a bit of odd worldbuilding problems. Is this the same department that we’ve been with for the whole franchise? How have we never met a character like Banks, who seems to have a personal thing against Jigsaw and his influence? If you’re familiar with Saw you know by now that retconning is the most frequently used tool in the box, but at least there’s no way they can do another “secret Kramer apprentice” reveal going forward… right?