The Saw franchise is one of the most recognized, quoted, parodied, and often maligned film series to ever grace the big screen. Created by genre powerhouses James Wan and Leigh Whannell before they found major success with films like Insidious, The Conjuring, The Invisible Man, and Upgrade – the original 2004 Saw launched a saga of exceedingly graphic punishment that’s continued on for eight entries and gone through more twists and turns (no matter how improbable) than M. Night Shyamalan’s entire filmography.
The movies follow the dastardly exploits of a serial killer named John Kramer AKA Jigsaw (played by Tobin Bell) and his numerous accomplices as they place their victims in deadly, elaborate traps intended to test their will to live. If they manage to survive (most do not), they supposedly walk away with a better appreciation for life. As the films went on, they attracted a lot of ire and disgust due to their relentlessly hopeless tone and, of course, their excruciating depictions of extreme violence. The franchise all but gave birth to the controversial term “torture porn”, which labeled the Saw movies and others like Hostel or The Human Centipede as purely sadistic just for the shock and entertainment of it.
Whether this is a fair description is up for debate and largely depends on which individual movie you’re watching. Beyond the gruesome trap sequences, the series also incorporates major elements of thrillers (the original film evokes much of David Fincher’s work), slashers, police procedurals, and is almost soap opera-like in the way it reveals a new killer or a character back from the dead with its endlessly intertwining story threads.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw, the latest and ninth installment of the franchise, returns to the roots of the original by being a thriller first and foremost, using its grisly traps sparingly, and taking time to actually flesh out its characters so that we actually care when they meet their demise. It still follows the tried-and-true Saw formula – people face torturous tests of survival, the police attempt to find out who’s behind the killings, there are twists, there are scenes of someone in a pig mask abducting people – so it’s definitely familiar but also feels fresh in numerous ways. Whereas the previous films remained relatively small in scope (seriously, how did Jigsaw get away with operating in the same general area for so long?), Spiral feels a bit bigger and more important, taking the story in a new and enticing direction.
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman – who took the franchise to new heights before with Saw II, III, and IV – the film’s concept was an idea from none other than Chris Rock, who stars as Detective Zeke Banks, a disillusioned and narcissistic cop working for the South Metro Police Department. One evening, a fellow officer named Boz (Dan Petronijevic) is lured into a horrific trap that involves his tongue (this happens in the first five minutes and you’ll decide if you have the stomach for this movie right then and there), in an act that’s almost identical to the Jigsaw killings from years ago. Zeke, along with his new rookie partner William (The Handmaid’s Tale star Max Minghella), are sent to investigate and as more bodies start to pile up, it quickly becomes clear that there’s a pattern: the copycat killer is specifically targeting corrupt cops.
Spiral doesn’t whitewash the crimes of these officers. They’re genuinely bad people who have been abusing their power; getting away with murder, lying in court to imprison innocent people, assaulting reporters, and punishing any actual moral coworker who dares to speak out. Zeke is one of those. He’s become an outcast among his department after he turned in his former partner for a despicable act, and it’s lead to the other officers shunning him and even ignoring his calls for backup when needed. Zeke doesn’t trust a single one of them anymore, adding to his other emotional wound of having to live in the shadow of his father, Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson), who once ran the department and who Zeke begrudgingly is forced to ask help from as the murders continue.
This movie was made some time before the historical and ongoing worldwide protests against police brutality and killings (it was originally set to release May 2020 but was held back by one of the other crises of last year, the COVID-19 pandemic), but it resonates more strongly now than it might have before. For a public now forced to reckon with the endless cycle of violence and tragedy that follow in the wake of police work, and abuses that are nothing new for countless people, a story about someone who takes revenge against that very real lack of accountability in the most extreme of ways seems eerily possible – if not inevitable. It likely also makes the torture scenes conflicting for some – do these cops deserve their torment? – mirroring the choices that Zeke is forced to make while trying to save them and discover the killer.
Spiral resembles Kevin Greutert’s Saw VI (the most underrated entry in the franchise) in the way that it gives meaning to the proceedings again. Jigsaw went after bad people in the previous films like murderers, rapists, and thieves, but he also killed people that seemed far less deserving of it, like unfaithful partners, self-harmers, or people he just had personal grudges against. Saw VI had the head of a predatory health insurance agency and his associates stuck in the hellish traps that time around, and highlighted the immoralities of the country’s murderous healthcare system much in the same way Spiral takes on issues with policing. Statistics are listed off about how cops have the highest divorce, domestic abuse, and suicide rates, and Zeke’s attempt to be a “good cop” and reform the department from the inside out, only to be punished for it, is all too real. That said, the film isn’t really about race, choosing instead to present the problems with police in a more general sense.
Thankfully, you don’t need to see the previous films or know their increasingly convoluted storylines. In fact, you don’t even really need to have watched the original, a passing familiarity with the series is honestly good enough. Spiral is a new story almost entirely, one that miraculously doesn’t feel the need to heavily rely on nostalgia and lazy throwbacks to what came before like other reboots so often do. The fresh cast is very welcome, bringing some much-needed levity and plenty of genuinely laugh-out-loud moments to a franchise that maybe took itself a bit too seriously for a bit too long. It also helps the characters feel much more alive and real, allowing them to actually crack a smile once in awhile and adding weight to when they have to suffer later on. The comedy is never overbearing nor does it take away from the horror of scenes when needed, which is a tricky line to walk.
But as much as Spiral improves on the series in a lot of ways, it also occasionally falls into the same traps (I’m sorry) that the movies have suffered from. Much of the dialogue feels uninspired, with the police jargon in particular being so cliche almost to the point of parody. Expositional lines like “Just because your dad was Chief Banks…” or “I took a bullet however many years ago” feel appropriately unnatural and are rendered nearly pointless once the film starts stacking up flashbacks (some to moments we literally just watched) to explain things to an audience that it doesn’t seem to fully trust. The ending also struggles to feel as satisfying or conclusive as it should (despite some solid twists), and a couple of plot threads – like Zeke’s deteriorating mental state once everyone around him starts dying – don’t lead to anything significant.
Still, for every stumble, the film manages to take two more steps forward. Scenes have a much better rhythm than before, and everything feels more significant and cinematic thanks to strong direction from Bousman and camera work from cinematographer Jordan Oram. One scene in particular, in which Zeke and William shoot the sh*t as they walk through a subway tunnel on the way to a crime scene, is an impressive and captivating single take, and it’s just one of the many ways, big and small, that help differentiate Spiral from its predecessors. Pair that with one of the strongest base ideas for a Saw film in quite some time – one that borrows harrowing visuals from reality like police dash cam footage and repurposes the iconic pig motif to great effect – and the result just might be the best of the entire franchise.