I have always said that the worst Saw movie is better than the worst installation of any other horror franchise. Since I get to keep saying that, I guess Spiral wasn’t a total loss.
To be honest though, I have a tough time even looking at Spiral as a Saw movie. When you look at the subtitle “From the Book of Saw” it seems as though the team behind this film was already looking to prepare fans for that feeling of disconnect. Early feedback from the trailers drew a lot of concern that the movie looked more like a police procedural than anything else, and they were quick to get some horror elements in their advertising as well to keep long-running fans of the franchise invested. Unfortunately not enough of that horror carried into the film itself — at least not for my tastes.
I was prepared for a different tone than what I’d grown accustomed to with the series and did my best to keep an open mind. There’s a new killer, a new style, and I wanted to be among the people who embraced it readily. But instead of getting something different, we got something that is objectively worse.
Spiral takes a different approach to the traditional Saw narrative by focusing on the investigators instead of the victims and not having any over-arcing group trap to build tension while the clues are being pieced together. “Being pieced together’ is a very generous way of saying left in neat boxes at the crime scene or being delivered directly to the police station. One large complaint I have about the movie is that the leading man Zeke spends more time doing drug busts and going under cover than he does actually investigating the copycat killer.
It also doesn’t show any of the featured traps in their entirety, or for long enough to really make the audience squirm. The mechanics of how the devices hold victims are often glossed over. The stylistically quick editing cuts that make a Saw movie have shifted from their job of keeping conversations short to the important task of making us really scratch our head at how the traps work.
So if Kramer is out of the picture after 8 movies, and the traps are treated as an afterthought, what is filling the rest of the run time?
My hope going in was the story.
Chris Rock is known for his political comedy, and he had his name all over this project. Bousman was also the one who introduced the idea of tackling corrupt systems into the Saw Franchise when, in the second installation, the film addresses Eric Matthews’ history of police brutality. I had high hopes for the two of them bringing some timely, poignant criticism of America’s justice system.
What we got felt like a very watered down version of what we’d already seen. Zeke plays the tantrum-throwing victim of an unjust system when he can’t trust his fellow officers after reporting one of them for corruption that everyone else was in on. This isn’t that different than Detective Gibson’s tragic tale in Saw: The Final Chapter where he is ultimately demoted for blowing the whistle on his partner’s brutality. Even the recruitment of police for these revenge killings isn’t a new angle, since that was something that was toyed with in Saw IV with Detective Rigg (who was written with a much wider range of emotion.)
Something that was new was Zeke’s relationship to his father, but even that is something we only get the bullet points of. Rock was rarely given the opportunity to emote anything in this film other than surface level frustration, or over the top self-pity. It kept him from being a more empathetic character, despite having one of the strongest moral compasses in the franchise. Even Rigg, who starts to understand and nearly condone the killings, was someone that the audiences could truly understand.
At his most relatable the character is making pop culture references (Forrest Gump and Twilight, both so timely.) This leads into a larger, but more abstract complaint about the movie; the polished quality it has. The references, the updated technology, the higher definition cameras, they all bring the franchise ever further away from that first, beloved film and into something more mainstream that I doubt will age well.
The saddest part?
This was the opportunity to show us John’s legacy. Based off of what we saw here, he didn’t really have one in this established universe. This plot could have taken place anywhere whether or not John Kramer ever existed. The narrative of twisting his beliefs into something cheap for revenge was left untouched in favor of a passing shot of his picture on the wall and a few easy quips about how Jigsaw is dead. For the first time, it sort of feels like he is.
Even The Final Chapter touched on the impact the Jigsaw traps had on their survivors. There were books. A documentary was coming out. There were support groups. There were public killings. In Jigsaw there was an underground fanbase. Both of those films had potential allies to carry on John’s legacy, to spread his word. There were beliefs. There was a fascinating moral code behind every trap, or the profound absence of such that made a new Jigsaw unworthy.
It’s sad to see that the loose ends have seemingly been abandoned for a story that just felt hollow.