I could really take or leave the Saw films at this point. For people concerned for my personal wellbeing because I’ve watched films in this series, I promise I’m ok and I have a strong moral compass. That’s actually what made the films interesting for me before things took a turn. It’s not a franchise I’m going to actively seek out at this point as the schtick has worn thing for me. Then…the trailer for Spiral hit featuring Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson and Max Minghella and I was more than a little intrigued. To have this level of talent involved AND bring Darren Lynn Bousman back to direct, I had to see what would happen.
Detective Zeke Banks (Rock) is a cop devoted to his job, but the fact that he turned in a dirty cop hasn’t won him any friends in the force. After going lone wolf on a sting operation, he’s tasked with training rookie William Schenk (Minghella) in a fairly classic cop movie trope. When a Jigsaw copycat killer sends Banks a package saying the rest of the cops in the precinct are his/her target, he’s face with the impossible task of stopping a killer and relying on people who haven’t had his back for years to make it happen.
I feel it’s important to say I have a love hate relationship with the Saw franchise. At its best (the second through fourth entries), it’s an especially bloody morality play that brings up interesting concepts around redemption via literal trial by fire and what justice can look like without any kind of grace or humanity. The second film in particular is one that’s stuck with me because it really digs into the reasoning behind why Jigsaw does what he does and what he’s trying to accomplish. Of course, it isn’t justifiable, but it’s still an engrossing idea. Once Jigsaw himself exited the series, the franchise lost all appeal for me as it became nothing more than a gauntlet of disturbing imagery with no real point. I don’t necessarily judge those who are interested in the gore effects and elaborate traps the Saw films came up with, but that in and of itself isn’t enough to hold my interest.
With Spiral, the series comes back with a fresh coat of paint that still feels very distinctly a part of the Saw universe. Genuine worry set in as after the film’s first kill, we cut to a scene that starts with Rock going on a funny tirade about how Forrest Gump is a movie about abuse. It’s not that the scene wasn’t funny, it’s that funny isn’t what a Saw movie is about. Fortunately, that proved to be an unwarranted concern. Although there are some genuinely laugh out loud moments in the film (a first for the franchise), this is most definitely not a comedy. Rock delivers the laughs through the voice of a man who has stood by his beliefs only to be chewed up and spit out for his trouble. That delivery lands on an entirely different level than if he was in full on stand up comedy mode.
Jackson is most definitely SAMUEL L JACKSON in this movie, but he pulls off retired chief Banks in wonderful fashion while still showing heart. I’ve mostly lost track of Minghella since his turn in The Social Network, but the work he puts on display in this film ensures he won’t be falling off my radar again anytime soon. As opposed to working in the fresh faced rookie trope of cop movies, his Schenk is a family man going into this life with his eyes pretty open. His optimism plays beautifully off Rock’s pessimism and they share a fantastic chemistry.
What makes Spiral fascinating, though, is how the film finds a way to live in the setting of a gritty procedural while subverting tropes of the genre and finding ways to be culturally relevant without necessarily becoming outright social commentary with a soapbox to jump up on. The idea of police brutality and corruption is a fundamental part of the film’s subject matter, but it also gets back to the idea of cold blooded justice in juxtaposition with humanity and mercy.
It’s impossible to talk in more detail without getting into spoilers, but my appreciation for this movie is how it uses big names and big performances to get the Saw franchise back to the heights that brought me into the series in the first place. Stunt casting to inject new interest in a franchise is just about the oldest trick in the book at this point. We’ve all heard the stars talk about how much they LOVED a property and how they HAD to be a part of it only to feel suckered into watching another soulless cash grab. With Spiral, it’s clear that Rock sees something in this series and had a great enough idea to get Bousman back into the directing saddle. Everyone in this film gives it their all and it pays dividends.
Obviously, there’s going to be a portion of those who read this wondering if there’s any actual blood or gore in this movie. Well, it’s a Saw movie. It can’t be a Saw movie without inventive traps and buckets of gore. The first kill of the film sets the expectation that there will be blood and the victims likely have it coming. To say anymore would ruin the fun.
It should go without saying that if you aren’t into gory horror movies, you likely won’t like Spiral. Even though I can legitimately defend a few of the films of the Saw series, I’m also not about to say that the squeamish are really going to get anything out of it. However, if you don’t mind a serial killer procedural that has more on its mind than only tropes, blood, and guts, Spiral will likely stick with you and have you thinking about it for awhile after you walk out of the theater.