Jigsaw is dead. And good riddance. After a confounding eight entry run, the game playing trap-maker has finally exited the franchise. As such, the ninth entry must justify its existence. A copycat killer is on the prowl. Whereas Jigsaw once offered life or death challenges for his victims as moral tests of their will to live and learn something about life, the new killer has an entirely different motive: to reform the police. A franchise that has always played with elements of social justice and retribution, it makes a certain kind of sense for the latest installation to become progressively woke. It was director Darren Lynn Bousman who moved the franchise toward its lasting template with the second movie, of a police investigation wraparound paired with the signature torture porn that the success of Saw (2004) popularized, so it makes sense that they would be the ones to move it even further in that direction, as a police procedural that just happens to have those basic Saw things happening, as the central case. After the franchise sighed its last breath of defeat with the prior film, Saw superfan Chris Rock met with Lionsgate, resolving to make this film his baby, a funny and sometimes grisly footnote to the series that was.
An issue as hotly debated and politically contested as police reform may initially seem outside the purview of the series. Such a weighty problem is a lot for a horror film to handle. Because it is so much bigger than any one cop, or this one particular precinct. The idea that weeding out a few bad apples would create any systemic and worthwhile change, is a particularly silly one. It seems like the truest target is the whole of the institution itself. To assume there are good cops and then bad actors within the institution, is a particularly damaging viewpoint the film espouses. Without credence or conviction in its messaging, this layer of Spiral is circumspect about formally taking any greater stand, or leveraging its enhanced sociopolitical context for any further meaning.
Even given its half-hearted attempts to revitalize the series with social currency, Spiral is often charming and imminently watchable, in the way episodic police procedurals can be. Chris Rock, perhaps through his own advocation, plays his role with comical aplomb. Rock is detective Zeke Banks, son of esteemed police veteran Marcus Banks, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Samuel L. Jackson plays Chris Rock’s Dad! That is a magnificent turn. They share one meaningful scene, which is the whole heart of the movie. They are great together and lend the series the kind of marquee names and acting credibility it has sorely been missing. It’s unfortunate that everyone acting around them has been poorly directed. None of the other performances even register, against actors that can make what they need of any given scene, the rest of the cast is left flailing with Bousman’s non-direction.
Rock’s character is a typical kind of television cop. He doesn’t play by the rules. When we meet him, he’s infiltrated a robbery, unknown to his precinct, and is in the middle of a heist in which he’s an active participant. As the other single great moment of the film, he launches into an entire diatribe about how Forrest Gump (1994) could not be made today and how that movie’s perception of its main character is inherently flawed. The film is sparingly funny like that and Rock seems to be really happy to be there. Just as his crew are hatching their escape, they’re caught by his very own precinct. A new case has emerged while he was playing rogue in the field. The commander of the division, a helpless Marisol Nichols, who plays every scene wrong (no thanks to her director), has to reel Zeke in. As is the trope in these things, he is assigned a fresh-eyed rookie partner played by Max Minghella, who is sadly never as credible as the material requires him to be.
The way the murders play out is the same as before. A victim is tied up to a trap and a recording plays. They must sacrifice a symbolic part of themselves through immense pain or die. Amusingly, the Jigsaw stand-in carries none of the same gravitas as the old shaking voice. It sounds like the tone of his voice is caught in the back of his throat, his nasally projection sounding less like that of a murderous killer than a friendly neighbor. His traps still carry quite a bit of bite, however. A man’s tongue is held tight on a vice, as he’s stood on a stool. He either jumps and rips his tongue out, symbolic for his life of lies, or gets hit by an oncoming train. Another lies in the bath, with their fingers about to be pulled off. Hot wax is poured over a cop. Yet another is held up like a marionette. Weirdly, the editing makes these moments inconsequential and sucks all the tension out. We occasionally find out the person has already died and then see how. In every case, the outcome is likely already obvious to us, exactly how it’s going to go for each individual, given their predicament and what they have done. The film forecasts all of this, so none of it is surprising, and these typical Saw devices are actually peripheral and not central to the primary story.
Beyond popularizing a grimy method of horror storytelling, Saw is also significant for ushering in our present age of serialized storytelling. Before Marvel really had a handle on it, Saw was stringing interconnected universe-sharing stories that comment upon one another freely, often in a headache-inducing puzzle that has confounded and delighted its fanbase ever since. Spiral offers an alternative. For the franchise that was known for its annualized Halloween releases, it has never been less interested in the horror of it all. Horror has moved forward and our needs and what’s actually horrifying to us has most certainly changed. Police corruption is truly terrifying, but Spiral has neither the motivation nor focus to make any kind of deeply impactful statement about these systems. What it does do is provide a semi-satisfying new avenue for the series to explore. With Chris Rock at its center, there’s just enough juice in these new ideas to necessitate a watch, but not nearly enough to reinvigorate the franchise with a path forward. When the film abruptly ends, seemingly in the middle of its climax, we’re left to wonder what it was all for.