Spiral opens with a shot of fireworks bursting colour across the dark black sky. The explosions represent a celebration, not just narratively, as it’s the 4th of July weekend, but thematically. 2017’s Jigsaw was widely panned by critics and fans alike, one major bone of contention being the move away from the franchise’s focus on the torture traps and gore, in favour of trying to create an atmosphere of mystery and tension which largely fell flat in my, and many others, opinion. So it wasn’t a big surprise when Jigsaw underperformed critically, but the box office numbers clearly showed that the audience and market for Saw films was still large, despite the 10 year hiatus of the franchise. But clearly the studio learned something off the back of Jigsaw because they brought back Darren Lynn Bousman to direct the 2021 follow-up Spiral.
While Bousman’s name isn’t synonymous with the series in the same way James Wan, Leigh Whannell or Tobin Bell’s names are. But Bousman pioneered the franchise’s early sequels, effectively establishing what the franchise would become known for. Bousman directed Saw 2, Saw 3 and Saw 4 before handing the reins of the franchise over and pursuing other projects. And in many ways it was this run of three films that defined what the franchise would continue to be going into the fifth, sixth and seventh entry in the series. While I have my issues with some of Bousman’s Saw films, specifically Saw 3 which is awfully edited, both Saw 2 and Saw 4 are a lot of fun and entries that bring a lot to the franchise.
So coming off of the disappointment of Jigsaw it was exciting to see Bousman return to the franchise, without the shackles of the initial storyline to confine him, and in many ways Spiral excels in this way. It feels authentically Saw while giving room for Bousman to craft his own narrative in the world without worrying about what came before. Early on in the film it’s established clearly that Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw is long dead, and this entry to the franchise never even toys with a lingering connection to the previous cast of characters, opting instead to pay homage to the franchise through clever nods and Easter Eggs.
Spiral focuses on Chris Rock’s Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks, a detective who leads the new case of a copycat killer emulating Jigsaw’s torture games but using corrupt Police Officers as the victims. Zeke has a personal connection to the case as the first officer found was the only officer who remained friendly with Zeke after Rock’s character reported the killing of an innocent witness by a corrupt Policeman who was attempting to cover up another Officer’s brutality. The first takes an active approach to criticising the police, something that is incredibly relevant in today’s current climate, and this in turns adds an interesting ethical question to the audience, about whether the copycat killer is in the right or wrong, something the original films toyed with often (although not always with the best execution….yes I’m talking about when Jigsaw killed a guy because he smokes). By centering police corruption at the centre of this entry, it adds an interesting layer to the film, the collusion and sense of loyalty that the police show to one other in the face of corruption and crimes reframes the torturous games as actual vigilante justice rather than the skewed vigilantism of the original films. The end of the film confronts you with the question of whether Zeke’s attempts to reform the police from the inside or the copycat killer’s attempt at reforming the police through violence, torture and fear, is the correct solution. In this sense Spiral can easily be compared to Saw 6 which tried to provide social commentary on the American healthcare system, these two entries are by far the most explicitly political entries into the franchise, and while I would argue Saw 6 overall is the better film, Spiral is a lot more thoughtful and considerate of it’s message and it’s themes than Saw 6 ends up being.
But while I’ve done a lot of praising of the film, the truth is, it has issues. Much like the majority of the franchise, Spiral is ultimately a mixed bag. One of the most egregious elements of the film is Chris Rock’s performance. While Rock is a notable, and in my opinion very funny, stand-up comedian and has dabbled in acting over the years, but for whatever reason his performance is laughably bad in Spiral. From his introduction, giving a poor man’s rendition of a stand-up set about Forrest Gump the acting is…rough. Not too long later we see Rock berating his new partner about his marriage, going on an extended rant about how unhappy police wives end up being and insinuating his partner’s wife is going to cheat on him. Again this is delivered as if Rock is performing stand-up comedy, the problem is, it’s not very funny, and Rock’s comedian-esque delivery feels awkward in the context of the scene. The issues with Rock’s performance go hand-in-hand with the issues of the screenplay. The dialogue feels incredibly goofy at times, the aforementioned Forrest Gump rant feels like someone watched the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs and thought “hey that sexist misreading of Forrest Gump that’s been on the internet for years could be used in the same way”. Even the use of the r-slur, which Rock’s character even accepts isn’t “woke” , feels so unnecessary as it’s used immediately after Rock gets mocked for using “special needs”. As the film goes on, the writing remains clunky and awkward, and even by the half-way mark, there are narrative elements that don’t make sense (not that logic is necessary in the Saw franchise).
While these criticisms do prevent the film being a great entry in the franchise, Spiral still remains a lot of fun. Going back to the fireworks at the beginning, it really does feel like this film is a return to form for the franchise. The torture games are gory and visceral, the editing evokes the signature style of the early films, and the mystery and twists feel just as fun and exciting as the older films. While Rock is far from the best leading man, Samuel L Jackson, Max Minghella, and Marisol Nichols round out the supporting cast well, and all three give good performances. Personally, I think Spiral is a great soft reboot for the franchise, it sets up the possibility of sequels well, it provides an interesting new villain for the series, and returns to the blood and gore that made the franchise so infamous to begin with.