Film Review – Spiral
Spiral (2021), the latest entry in the long running Saw franchise, aims to be something a little more serious than previous installments while still offering all the blood splatter fans are accustomed to. Although the intention to shed light on real world issues is admirable, the film stumbles on execution, creativity, and entertainment. It jumbles a number of tones, going from social commentary to horror and comedy, not leaving a lasting impact with any of them. If you’re into gore and “torture porn” horror, then you might find something worthwhile here. If you’re looking just to have some fun, this probably ain’t it.
Let me get this out of the way, dear reader: The Saw franchise was never my cup of tea. Seeing people put in elaborate contraptions where they either have to die or chop a limb off is not something I particularly enjoy watching. The 2004 original set the standard by making it more about the ideas than just the horror. Characters were forced to confront the misdeeds of their pasts and face the consequences of them. But with each subsequent sequel the traps became more over the top. The ideas took a back seat to the viscera – the shock became the featured attraction. Maybe that’s a positive thing for you, maybe not – responses may vary.
This time around, we follow Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock). Banks is a loner within the police force, whose efforts to smoke out dirty cops has made him an outcast. He is estranged from his wife, and his relationship with his father (Samuel L. Jackson) consists of takeout food and conversations about the job. Before Zeke can work out his problems at home, he is tossed in the middle of a gruesome string of murders. Someone – copying the exploits of the serial killer Jigsaw – has been targeting police officers. Forced to partner with rookie detective William Schenk (Max Minghella), Zeke goes on the hunt for this new killer before more of his fellow officers are killed.
Co-written by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger (who previously penned 2017’s Jigsaw) and directed by long-time Saw veteran Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, III, IV), Spiral takes a more tempered down, methodical approach. There is a clear inspiration from Se7en (1995) in terms of the central investigation. It also tries to comment on the unspoken “blue wall of silence” where officers don’t snitch on each other regardless of misconduct. But all of these ideas are half baked, introduced but never truly explored. Instead, the narrative falls back into old Saw cliches – hopping back and forth in time, revealing twists and turns that are increasingly stupid the further along we go. We’ll get a flashback to a pivotal moment in Zeke’s past, and then will return multiple times from different perspectives so that what was suggested before is now the complete opposite.
One of my least favorite narratives in all of movies is the “It Was All Part of The Plan” story. This is where characters manipulate the plot so that everything falls their way. When done right, it comes as a surprise, revealing deeper truths about humanity (see Se7en again). But when done poorly, it operates as a cheap way for filmmakers to get themselves out of a corner. No matter how stuck a character may be, by the end they reveal that it was all magically planned out exactly how they wanted. Spiral falls into the latter category. Zeke and Schenk don’t really do much investigating, they are simply reacting to what the killer is doing. They have no power over what happens – Zeke spends a lot of time running around in confused circles.
Chris Rock is an admitted fan of the Saw franchise, and reportedly it was his pitch that helped bring Spiral to life. Rock is a solid performer when given the right material to work with, sadly he is not given that opportunity here. He seems to be moving one way while everyone else is going in the other direction. Rock plays Zeke as a standup comedian, cracking jokes in just about every other scene he is in. Zeke is meant to be a person worn down by the job and exhausted by the corruption happening within his precinct, but every time he sits down and talks with anyone, he has to deliver a punchline. In small doses this isn’t a bad thing – and in fact could have worked as a kind of defense mechanism for Zeke. But Rock is in this mode all the time, rarely giving different shades to the character. It’s as though while everyone else is moving the story along, he is sitting back working on his next comedy special.
Spiral is not scary, or funny, or gruesome, or thought-provoking, or compelling. It tries to take on heavier topics but ends doing nothing with them. Most disappointingly, all of the secrets are easily deduced way before the characters discover them. We end up having to wait until they catch up with us. Of course, this wouldn’t be a true installment into the Saw lineup without leaving room for more to come. Maybe the spiral emblem is a metaphor for the series itself – turning round and round without ever really going anywhere.