2021, R, 93 min. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. Starring Chris Rock, Max Minghella, Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan David Jones, Ali Johnson, Dan Petronijevic, Richard Zeppieri, Edie Inksetter.
REVIEWED By Jenny Nulf, Fri., May 14, 2021
It might be a controversial opinion among the fanboys and girls of the Eighties slasher franchises, but the Saw series is one of the most interesting mainstream horror franchises of all time. It is why 2017’s soft reboot Jigsaw was a disaster. With cheap tie-ins to keep John Kramer (Tobin Bell) tangled in the plot after Saw 3D: The Final Chapter firmly ended his legacy, Jigsaw was a colossal misfire for the series.
Enter Chris Rock, whose smooth talking at a Brazilian wedding found himself in a pitch room with Lionsgate executives to bring back the Saw franchise again, but not in the way one would expect. Spiral, helmed by longtime franchise director Darren Lynn Bousman, doesn’t need Kramer and his group of apprentices to feel like a Saw film. Together, Bousman and Rock created the kind of reboot the series needed – a legacy even Kramer would be proud of.
Saw began in a post-9/11 landscape. The sadistic nature of torture porn erupted in popularity in the 2000s because it reflected the extreme violence that flickered across television news programs every night. This kind of extreme brutality is still prevalent, but instead of waterboarding, police violence decorates our daily news coverage, drowning social media feeds. The Saw films have always been littered with cops, a majority of them good-leaning detectives trying to stop the Jigsaw Killer (and then there’s Jigsaw’s worst apprentice, Detective Hoffman), but Rock and the creative team behind Spiral know better than to litter a 2021 film with “good cops.”
Rock’s character, Detective Zeke Banks, is seen as a rat among his peers, the snitch who landed his partner nine years of jail time after he purposefully murdered an innocent witness. He’s loud about dirty cops and police corruption – a rule follower until the end. After his cover is blown during a mission, he is saddled with training a newbie, Schneck (Minghella), and the duo are sent to clean up what seems to be a metro accident involving a homeless man, but ends up being the first kill by a Jigsaw copycat who is explicitly targeting dishonest cops.
Spiral returns to the roots of the franchise, with its Se7en-like grungy aesthetic and grisly murders that nourish the cravings of extremity horror hounds. It’s dark, nasty, and twisted, with hellish murder traps, rusty warehouses, and delightfully grotesque butcher shops. Spiral oozes Saw City ambience, and given the city’s grizzled past, it makes sense that one man’s moralistic murderous rampage led to cops being given too much power. The copycat cuts the tongue out of lying cops and severs the fingers of trigger-happy ones that shoot first and ask questions later. He’s a villain an audience in 2021 can understand, especially after a summer that erupted in Black Lives Matter protests across the country. Rock may not have penned the script (Jigsaw’s Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger did), but his point of view is woven into the swirls of Spiral. It’s a film that screams, “Defund the police,” without putting Black trauma on display, and flips the tables in Saw fashion by punishing the wrongdoers while, as tradition goes, giving them a chance at redemption.
But do these men and women deserve redemption for abusing their power? Spiral is not interested in giving away these answers quite yet, and the film’s gut-punch of an ending will leave many gasping as they did at the end of Saw, when Jigsaw rose from the grimy bathroom floor, revealing he was alive and in the bathroom the entire time. Spiral embodies the franchise James Wan and Leigh Whannell built, while being totally refurbished for a new generation.