All of Darren Lynn Bousman’s Saw entries, from the second film in the long-running series to his return to the fold with Spiral, share a certain visceral quality. It’s in the way he indulges in the torture porn of it all, pushing in on the grotesque imagery present in these films. The most entertaining moments of Spiral are all about this kind of imagery, from a close-up on fingers being slowly ripped off one man’s hands to brief flashes of another person’s pearly whites being caked in blood as his tongue is ripped out.
Much of the pleasure of the Saw series comes from watching these executions unfold; fascinating machinations that offer the slightest chance of escape (under the guise of letting go of a part of you as penance for your redemption). As much joy as there has been in watching most of the films try to bend over backwards to add new details and enrich an almost nonsensical lore around Jigsaw, each installment pushing further into bad taste with inventive torture machines is even more of a delight.
Spiral tries to adhere to a structure that already exists within the Saw franchise while also trying to reinvent it. It acts as though its new narrative, focusing on Chris Rock’s detective Zeke Banks being the only good cop in a precinct of corrupt ones being slain by a Jigsaw imitator, is one with more weight than your average cop procedural. It wants to be a prestige film that has something to say about the police while also being a film that features someone having hot wax poured all over their body if they don’t sever their spine.
The Saw films are, and always have been, a perverse piece of post-9/11 cinema that allows audiences to filter their fascination with death and torture through a fictional lens. There is no guilt in watching Jigsaw put his victims through the ringer, especially when they’re framed as monstrous figures (take Saw VI and the way it takes on the deeply fucked realm of health insurance and those who decide who gets to live or die). By allowing whoever the antagonist of the film is to have a fixed target to take down, however much the audience agreed or disagree with them, the Saw films were able to take pleasure in creatively killing people on screen.
The problem with Spiral then is its uncertainty on what it’s trying to say. It is too cowardly to allow its antagonist to make any concrete declarations about how cops are all bad, choosing instead to place its lead detective as the golden standard contrast of what a good cop should be. But, while it implies that not all cops are bad, it does absolutely nothing to reinforce that thesis, instead countering it by making every single character within the precinct someone who either actively or passively allows the “bad cops” to continue working. Each instance of corruption is comically villainous, the worst being when Bousman inserts dash cam footage of a cop shooting a driver that flips him off for no apparent reason. This would be a lazy approach to police corruption in any case, but rings especially questionable in an era where every action cops make reinforce the notion that abolition is necessary.
What weighs Spiral down most is dedicating much of its runtime to the inter-office relationships of Zeke, his father (Samuel L. Jackson), and his coworkers, all of whom seem to work against him even when they claim otherwise. Most of its story and dialogue feel like a pale imitation of a cop film, laughable in how predictable and artificial it all sounds. Rock’s performance isn’t allowed to be as self-aware as one might expect from the comedian stepping into the Saw universe, and Jackson is the only one who can ring any emotion out of a shallow script. Every time Bousman returns to the bloody beauty and playful torture porn, there’s a reminder of what fun Spiral could have been. Much like Seinfeld‘s Elaine watching The English Patient, it’s the kind of film that begs for a little less talking and a little more yelling at the screen to “just die already!”
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman; written by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger; starring Chris Rock, Max Minghella, Marisol Nichols, and Samuel L. Jackson; 93 minutes.
Spiral is now playing in theaters everywhere.