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Spiral: From the Book of Saw Review

Spiral: From the Book of Saw is the worst of both worlds. It’s a hollow mimicry of the Saw series, unlikely to satisfy long-time fans, but it has just enough gory, Saw-like material to alienate general audiences. It is also, simply, not good enough on its own terms to qualify as a competent work of art — or even a competent studio product churned out on a conveyor belt and squirted with a dash of familiar franchise flavor. To make matters worse, it grasps at social relevance and weighty, moralistic messaging in a manner that feels downright mystifying.Granted, it wouldn’t be the first Saw film to attempt this. Saw VI, the last enjoyable entry, took aim at America’s broken healthcare industry by placing a health insurance CEO in its central game, forcing him to choose which of his employees would live or die. Spiral, similarly, attempts to draw thematic connections between two forms of predatory death-dealing: Jigsaw traps, which force victims into self-mutilation in order to survive, and a brutal system of policing that shields itself from consequences, even when its officers kill people. The key difference, however, is that Saw VI knew how to have fun with its premise.

Spiral, the ninth entry in the series (and the second soft reboot in recent years), has an opening scene that promises an understanding of what made the series tick. It’s a simple, back-to-basics trap that pivots away from the large-scale Rube Goldberg torture houses of later entries. It’s gaudy, intense, and enjoyable in a way the series hasn’t been for ages, but everything tumbles downhill from there.

At the story’s center is Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Chris Rock), seemingly the only virtuous cop in a department of corrupt scumbags, and the son of a respected retired police captain, Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson). Chris Rock originally approached Lionsgate with the idea for a new Saw film, and the final product feels like a vehicle for his talents, though not necessarily his dramatic ones. Zeke isn’t so much a real person in a tough predicament, but an evocation of the idea of virtue; when he’s introduced, he doesn’t speak in dialogue as much as he does in stand-up routines about divorce, as if Rock had simply re-used outtakes from his 2018 special Tamborine. It would be one thing if tapping into Rock’s comedic energy were the point — the marketing certainly seems to be courting mainstream moviegoers — however, Zeke puts on a serious face for the rest of the film once mysterious clues begin showing up at the station, and cops around him start being kidnapped and placed in Jigsaw games one at a time.

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At this point, you may be wondering what the film’s central premise even is. I’m afraid I’ve just described it. The first Saw was an escape room; the second was an escape house; the third was a walkthrough of a hellish meat factory — and so on. Spiral, despite marketing itself as a Saw movie (or at least, Saw-adjacent), doesn’t actually have a central “game” of which to speak. It’s simply CSI: Jigsaw, with Zeke and his fellow officers responding to hints and discovering gruesome crime scenes while trying to figure out the killer’s identity.

Not only is the film un-Saw-like in structure, but it has a strange relationship to the Saw series’ sprawling continuity. The Saw sequels are usually obsessed with drawing tenuous connections and filling in narrative gaps through flashbacks. They’re incredibly sincere about it, too. It’s part of their bizarre charm. The Spiral trailers pose a central question about whether these new killings are the work of a copycat or someone connected to the original Jigsaw, John Kramer (Tobin Bell), which wouldn’t be too much of a stretch, since he recruited enough apprentices to have his work continue well beyond his death in Saw III. Spiral no doubt answers this question, but it does so gutlessly and guilelessly, simply stating it outright instead of unveiling it through its narrative.

Spiral treats its lack of structure, and its lack of narrative intrigue, as virtues. Sure, these are “unique” for a Saw film, but in the same way, having a Fast and Furious movie without cars would be “unique.” It even tries to highlight its supposed novelty by having Zeke say, of the original Jigsaw killer, that he “didn’t target cops,” even though he most certainly did. The central premise of both Saw II and Saw IV, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, involved cops being the targets of Jigsaw games. Spiral was also directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. What gives?The new killer has a bone to pick with law enforcement, and the film does, at least, draw a connection between the many pig masks throughout the series and these new targets (the classic “Billy” puppet is replaced by a pig puppet in police uniform). A few of the traps are fun if torture-porn is your thing. And while the monotone, robotic voice used by the new killer is a far cry from Jigsaw’s menacing rasps, the recorded instructions for each victim are suitably laden with puns, in a classically Jigsaw manner. If the recording mentions “pointing fingers,” you can pretty much assume which body part the trap will target.

However, none of this makes the film remotely interesting. Bousman certainly returns the color palette to the garish tones of the early series, but those dingy, primary washes worked for the sickly, claustrophobic enclosures of the initial films. Most of Spiral takes place out in the open. It follows cops moving from place to place, with scenes often ordered and connected incoherently, and the traps themselves don’t take up all that much of the runtime.

With the traps sidelined, and the series’ winding lore no longer much of a concern, there’s only one real Saw-esque target left for Spiral to hit: the plot twist. Every film in the series has one, and it usually comes out of left field, even if it needs to cheat to fool the audience. However, Spiral’s premise is that of a murder mystery, and it’s entirely about trying to uncover the killer’s identity from the start. Even if you don’t know the answer, the film asks the question so many times that it leaves little possibility for surprise. What’s more, the film doesn’t even have the decency to use Charlie Clouser’s “Hello Zepp” for its big reveal, the musical composition that has scored every one of the series’ twists till date (strangely, the film uses the track elsewhere, in a distinctly non-twist capacity).Between its cast of Black A-listers (who barely share the screen), its hip hop and R&B heavy soundtrack, its 21 Savage remix of “Hello Zepp” and its focus on police brutality, the film clearly hopes to insert itself into the post-Get Out wave of socially-minded Black mainstream horror. Although, it does this about as deftly as the dopey slave-sploitation thriller Antebellum. It even goes as far as employing imagery evocative of police shootings, in a moment that tries (and fails, quite egregiously) to echo the social commentary of George Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead. You’ll know it when you see it, and good lord, is it mishandled.

And yet, despite all this, the film doesn’t want to actually confront the specter of race that looms over it, other than by having two of its lead characters be Black police officers (along with two other non-white supporting cops, played by Max Minghella and Marisol Nichols). For that matter, the film doesn’t want to confront any of its own ideas. Between its “Book of Saw” subtitle and the protagonist’s name, Ezekiel, it hints at some religiosity in its subtext, but apart from a trap that vaguely resembles the idea of turning away from fire and brimstone, à la the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah — it’s a reach — these are mostly empty platitudes.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw is barely a Saw film, delivering only briefly on the visceral thrill of mutilation, and on none of the series’ other tenets. It’s also the most artless, tactless version of what it plays like instead: a rejected pilot episode for a rote police procedural.

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