Runtime: 93 minutes
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Writers: Josh Stolberg, Pete Goldfinger
Actors: Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, Max Minghella, Marisol Nichols, Dan Petronijevic, Richard Zeppieri
By Caelyn O’Reilly
I’m kind of a “Saw” fan. I don’t mean “kind of” in a self-deprecating “Oh I’m a superfan who knows every factoid but I don’t wanna brag” way. I mean, kind of a fan. Yeah I did own all the first seven films on DVD and Blu Ray, and it’s a series I think about a good deal. But if you asked me if it’s a good series, well…
I like the first two a lot. “Jigsaw”, the eighth one, is fun if a bit slight. And there’s some really interesting parts in “Saw 3”. But apart from that? Ehhhhhhh. I’m a “Saw fan” who barely likes half the films in the franchise, though I suppose that makes me an ideal candidate for reviewing this film. I went in hoping to like “Spiral”, and I cared about how it connected to the films prior, but disliking a “Saw” movie would not be new to me. So did I like ”Spiral”(2021)?
One of the key selling points of “Spiral” was its attempt to take the franchise in a fairly new direction. In an interview with Scott Mendelson for Forbes, director Darren Lynn Bousman (who helmed the second, third and fourth “Saw” films, and arguably cemented the visual style of the series) emphasized that this was not “Saw 9”. “Spiral” would be a “more adult” “procedural thriller”. But even in this interview, Bousman admits the series has always had a significant focus on police. Every film in the series has featured an intercut narrative split between law enforcement investigating Jigsaw and characters stuck in one of his traps. So this idea of “Spiral” being a totally new direction for the franchise is really overselling things. This isn’t a reinvention of the formula, it’s a fairly minor rebalancing. This film doesn’t change much of anything about the basic format aside from the amount of screen time each storyline gets. It’s basically just “Saw” if they didn’t show the bathroom until the end.
In reality, the final film ends up seeming more of an attempt at a back-to-basics approach, trying to recapture the mystique and intrigue of the first film. New killer, new protagonists, new iconography – and most importantly – no connection to convoluted interweaving series narrative beyond a few cursory references (and one visual nod that is such a comically pointless aside it comes across like a troll on the audience). Honestly, this is a brilliant call. Narratively, this series is dying for a clean slate to build from. While I’ve loved the intensely interconnected narrative of the series, it’s not exactly conducive to a fresh start that’s welcoming to new audiences. Unfortunately a lot of the new iconography and characters feel like pale replacements of what came before. This is especially seen in the new Jigsaw voice heard in his recordings. Tobin Bell’s performance was the heart of the series, he sold John Kramer as a character in a way genuinely few other actors could. His whole philosophy is actually pretty transparent as complete nonsense if given much thought but Tobin sells it so completely you could be fooled. What I’m saying is that Tobin Bell would make a brilliant cult leader. In his place on the tv screens in the trap scenes “Spiral” goes for more of a text-to-speech sounding voice. Again, not a bad idea in concept. But the particular, soft-spoken voice they went with simply cannot make the explanation of the convoluted traps threatening in the way Tobin could. This is how a lot of the attempts at innovation feel here, like the off-brand version of “Saw”, failing to recapture or possibly even understand what made it work the first time around.
Okay, I’ve talked a lot about what this film doesn’t have. But what does it have? Well it has a new big-name lead in Chris Rock, but despite Rock seemingly being the key instigator for getting this film off the ground, his performance is surprisingly unengaging. His character’s personality seems to be wholly built of cop movie archetypes. Depending on the line he bounces back and forth between the loudmouth always cracking jokes and the hyper-serious detective who can never get their mind off the job. And he seems to be attempting to make his performance more intense by constantly giving wide-eyed, unblinking stares. It doesn’t help that he enters the film in the middle of a bizarre, pointless rant about how you couldn’t make “Forrest Gump” today because ableist slurs are more frowned upon and how Jenny was evil actually. Possibly one of the most eye-roll-inducing protagonist introductions I’ve ever seen.
For those familiar with the “Saw” series through cultural osmosis, they’ll probably cite the complex traps and gore as the main draws of the films. And while there are plenty of fans who would agree, they would also cite the narratives and especially the final twists as the elements that make or break a “Saw” film. And here they are… eh. Like the original film “Spiral” is a whodunnit, we don’t know who is behind these new Jigsaw murders. Even for those who dislike the “Saw” series most will acknowledge the strength and shock of the first film’s reveal as the corpse in the middle of the bathroom stands up. In comparison, the reveal of the killer in “Spiral” is crushingly underwhelming. Not only visually (they’re just kinda standing casually in a big empty room as the protagonist walks in) but their identity is thunderingly obvious even for someone like me who almost never sees twists coming. Though that’s never where a “Saw” film’s twists end, every film in the series has a big final reveal or even multiple that play out as a the iconic “Saw” theme blares and the film flashes back to all the earlier clues that led up to this moment. Even the worst films in the franchise at least attempt something befitting of this grandiose presentation, something that reframes the entire film you just watched. “Spiral” does not. It has a final twist that reveals as the theme plays and flashbacks clue you in on what you might have missed but what it’s revealing is not up to par. It’s more of a cute visual gag than a fundamental shift in what you thought you knew. This might not be such a problem for non-fans of the series going into “Spiral” but for me it just ended the film on a big “Wait, that’s it?” moment.
Unfortunately, that’s not all because “Spiral” attempts to tackle a particularly hot-button issue, police brutality. The new Jigsaw killings are specifically motivated by it, taking Kramer’s philosophy of the traps being transformative experiences and applying it to ending police abuse of power through fear. The big problem here is that this philosophy of near-death experiences being positively transformative, fixing flaws by instilling an appreciation of life, falls apart if you even glance at it. It’s a bit gross when applied to things like self-harm and drug addiction in the early films but when applied to such a systemic issue as police brutality it becomes outright distasteful. This is made all the worse by how the film visualizes this brutality in the fleeting moments it actually deigns to show this issue it bases its whole narrative around. This is exemplified by a scene where the killer shows one of his trapped victims a piece of dashcam footage showing him shooting someone for flipping him off. In reality, this type of footage is disgustingly common yet brutally gut-wrenching any time a murder like this happens. In “Spiral”, this moment is so precisely choreographed as to feel more like an Onion sketch than anything in reality. The hand gracefully emerging from the window and slowly raising its middle finger before a beat of nothing and then the cop whipping out his gun and stepping back with one foot as he fires as if it’s a dance step. It makes something that should be horrifying laughable. This film cannot even begin to handle the gravity of the subject it chose to be about to the point where it makes me wonder if the filmmakers just chose it to be relevant rather than to say anything concrete.
With all that said, I still hope this isn’t the end for the “Saw” series on film. I genuinely hope it keeps going. Even if this is a far lesser entry with weak twists and a failed theme, I still had fun watching it. “Saw” is often trash but it is *my* trash and will follow it however far down the garbage chute it goes. But if you’re a newbie looking to get into the series for the first time I would easily recommend the original 2004 classic over this film any day.
Let’s hope the game isn’t over for “Saw” just yet.