So, in our house, we are pretty big Saw nerds - so much so that, in the first few months of dating, my other half and I attempted a nearly impossible feat: editing the entire Saw series into one super cut all laid out in chronological order (Saw VI completely messed up our plans though, and we eventually gave up the premise all together). But the Saw series is something that has very much been a big part of my own personal horror fandom over the last (nearly) 17 years, and while Jigsaw was a serviceable entry in the franchise, I admit that I had felt a bit forlorn by the time its conclusion rolled around because the John Kramer saga had become so over-manipulated and bloated at that point, the lustre of the Saw mythos had officially lost its sheen.
And that brings us to Spiral: From the Book of Saw, which charts a bold new course that feels very much in line with everything that I’ve always loved about the Saw films, but also does some very interesting things narrative-wise that also sets it apart from the John Kramer saga all the same. That’s not to say that it totally abandons everything from the Saw films, so fret not long-time fans, but Spiral is a separate story that not only feels timely, but it also manages to deliver quite a few blood-soaked thrills and chills that brings Jigsaw’s life lessons into a new day and age in some rather ingenious ways.
In Spiral, we’re introduced to Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) who has been ostracized by nearly everyone in his department for previously turning in a crooked co-worker and has failed to live up to the lofty expectations of his father, the now-retired police chief Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson) as well. But after one of fellow officers finds themselves the victim of a Jigsaw-esque trap, Zeke is forced by his boss Captain Garza (Marisol Nichols) to partner up with a young detective-in-training named William (Max Minghella) to try and solve the brutal crime before more of his comrades find themselves in a similarly dangerous set-up that will undoubtedly cost them their lives.
If I sound like I’m being vague about the plot of Spiral, I am - for so many of us, the fun of the Saw films are all the twists and turns and reveals, and I wouldn’t dream of ruining that experience for anyone else out there, because I truly enjoyed myself every gore-filled step of the way in this latest franchise entry.
For Spiral, writers Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg return to the Saw series after penning Jigsaw, and I must admit that this time, they were far more successful here than with their previous collaboration. My guess is that with Jigsaw, both Stolberg and Goldfinger had to traverse some tricky waters with that film that still tied directly to the John Kramer storyline, but here, it feels like they had a sense of freedom by being able to take a new direction with Spiral story-wise, where this acknowledges the events of the Saw series but it’s not bogged down by all those tricky details that continued to compound throughout eight different films.
And I’ll be the first to admit that while I was initially a little bit bummed out about the fact that Spiral was distancing itself from the other movies’ storylines, bu by the time the big finale was underway, I was actually happy that this movie ended up doing its own thing because it felt like Spiral was getting back to the elements that made the Saw films so great in the first place. I know so many people out there have always considered the gory traps, the excessive blood-letting and all the gnarly visuals the earmarks of the Saw series (and I dig those, too), but what I’ve always enjoyed about these stories are all the crime/thriller elements that weave this intricate mystery that is really fun to try and solve while you’re watching everything unfold. And Spiral just really nails those aspects exceedingly well.
I also enjoyed that, like the Saw films, Spiral also ends up being a socially-conscious thriller that takes on the unfortunately timely issue of police corruption head on this time around. And even though its narrative is squarely focused on Rock’s honest and dedicated detective, it does a great job of holding up a cinematic magnifying glass of sorts up to the layered issues that are currently plaguing law enforcement organizations throughout our country and doesn’t glorify their role in society either. Zeke is a good guy trying to do the right thing, but he also makes dumb decisions and he’s got his own personal issues to boot. But since Spiral is taking on police corruption, that provided the film with the opportunity to introduce a brand new puppet - a pig marionette dressed up like a cop - and it makes for an incredibly striking visual that helps drive home the message at the heart of Spiral.
At the helm of this latest entry in the Saw-iverse is Darren Lynn Bousman, who first made a name for himself while directing Saw II, and continued to find success in the next two Saw sequels as well. Personally, I’ve always considered Saw II to be where the franchise really earned its “legs” and took off in new and exciting ways, so I think it’s perfect that Bousman has returned to the franchise to launch yet another new start here. And truth be told, I’ve always been a fan of what Bousman managed to achieve as a visual storyteller in Saw II through IV as he earned his stripes, but Spiral is easily the best project he’s directed thus far in his career, and there’s a great sense of filmmaking confidence on display from Bousman that demonstrates some real growth on his part and I’d love to see him return if the movie gods are so inclined to give us another Spiral down the line.
As far as the performances in Spiral go, Rock is really damn fantastic and makes for a compelling lead character that you can empathize with as he butts heads with nearly everyone else in the film. Because he’s so well known in comedy circles, I know many folks weren’t sure how Rock would fare in a full-on serious role, but between Fargo and Spiral, the groundbreaking comedian has demonstrated great range as a performer in all types of roles. The rest of Spiral’s cast deliver strong performances too, but my personal favorite of the film was Marisol Nichols who practically steals every scene that she’s in here. She’s so damn good.
On a technical level, Spiral both looks and sounds great, with cinematographer Jordan Oram doing an exceptional job of capturing the oppressive moodiness of this story through his lens. I was also thrilled to see Charlie Clouser return to the Saw-iverse too, because his brilliant Saw theme has become such a huge mainstay in modern horror - when it hits, you know that the proverbial poop is about to hit the fan in some very big ways - and even if Spiral isn’t necessarily directly tied to the OG Saw series, the inclusion of that theme in this gave this genre nerd goosebumps and made me positively giddy once it began. Also, I won’t go too much into the traps that are utilized in Spiral - again, some of those reveals are truly chill-inducing, and I want to make sure you get to enjoy those moments the same way that I did - but I will say is that I really enjoyed that they are realistically intricate but they also don’t feel like they’re trying to outdo the traps that John Kramer unleashed in the other movies either. And without a doubt, they are all nightmarish scenarios I never want to find myself in under any circumstances because I would be dead meat in a heartbeat, no doubt.
As a whole, Spiral is a brilliantly executed horror/thriller hybrid that does an excellent job of giving Saw fans what they would want out of a new installment made with the spirit of the franchise in mind, but also manages to blaze its own path at the same time, which is no easy feat. Undoubtedly, Spiral is yet another high-mark for the Saw franchise that dishes out a handful of gruesome life lessons but also delivers up a wildly entertaining mystery that should keep fans guessing along the way. I’ll admit that I’ve always gone into all of the Saw films expecting to like them (or at least hoping to, in some cases), but I was not prepared for just how much I ended up loving Spiral. What a perfect way to kick off the summer movie season.
Movie Score: 4.5/5