[Review] 'Spiral' is an Uneven Return to Basics that Suffers from Narrative Traps
“The spiral. A symbol of change, evolution, progress…”
…For fans, this is what has always been one of the best parts of the Saw franchise. An ever-changing storyline that offers new twists and turns that not only evolve the series, but also manage to bring it back around to the beginning in ways that shine a whole new light on what we’ve seen before. With returning franchise director Darren Lynn Bousman’s Spiral, fans will have to decide how much change is too much.
Written by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger (the writers behind Jigsaw), Spiral introduces us to detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock), your standard “I don’t want a partner” trope with a troubled history of dealing with crooked cops, which has left him disliked by his co-workers. So of course, he is none too happy about being paired with rookie cop, William (Max Minghella). When their first case together happens to involve a mutilated body left by a Jigsaw copycat who has a score to settle with the police, Zeke finds himself in a desperate game to find the killer before it’s his turn to play.
The game gets off to a good start, but Spiral quickly finds itself caught in its own narrative traps.
Like any good Saw film, Spiral opens with a bang that might leave some speechless, especially the poor victim that finds himself in a bit of a deadly tongue twister deep in the grimy underbelly of the city. The kill is squirmy, brutal, and bloody as hell, rivaling some of the best openings in the franchise. But this is also where things start to feel…off.
For one, gone is the mysterious, intimidating voice of Jigsaw that we’ve come to associate so well with the series, replaced by a nasally voice that struggles to instill real fear. Also gone is the iconic image of Billy the Puppet, replaced instead by what I’ll call Piggy, an ugly pig puppet on strings in a cop’s uniform. Neither of these elements are “bad” per say, but they are stark reminders that this is a new Saw that aims more to separate itself from previous entries than indulge in what has come before.
While Piggy isn’t exactly the terrifying symbol that Billy is, he is emblematic of a major theme running throughout Spiral: corrupt cops. Like other Saw films, Spiral is heavy on the cop theme, with Zeke’s fellow officers the prime targets, thanks to their connection which I won’t spoil here. It would be an understatement to say that our society is fed up with bad policing, and Bousman’s film is a heavy commentary on that very fact. There is nothing subtle about Spiral in this regard. Spiral is an indictment on bad cops, putting them under Jigsaw's blade to face a brutal, angry vengeance.
At the heart of it all is Chris Rock, who is far and away the best thing going for the film. Zeke is a guy who feels lost, disconnected from the force, and aware he’ll never be as respected of a cop as his estranged father, Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson), who does not get nearly enough screen time with Chris. Rock is superb in the role as a man who badly wants to believe in justice, but is all too aware of the system’s failings around him. The spiral is a metaphor for change, but it’s also a symbol of the whirling descent which Rock finds himself slipping into, like a piece of meat being sucked down a drain and into the dark depths of the garbage disposal. Rock’s full range is on display in Spiral, alternating between vintage Chris Rock moments that play like excerpts from his standup comedy, and scenes of rage that express beautifully the frustration we all feel towards the grimy, corrupt world around us.
Speaking of grime, Bousman and cinematographer Jordan Oram bring the series back to its roots in terms of the look, which was sorely missing from the last few sequels. Spiral is a film that constantly feels hot, sweaty, and uncomfortably dirty, with rancid hues of yellows and greens filling the screen with a sickly atmosphere. Saw has never been a series that one would describe as “pretty”, and Spiral nails that aesthetic.
Where Spiral turns a good game bad is in arguably the most important element of the franchise, the traps.
Like I said, Spiral starts strong with a grisly trap that already has the internet buzzing, but from there, we are witness to just one more trap…in the first hour…of a ninety-minute movie. And if that isn’t disappointing enough, the film cuts away from the trap just as it gets going, only to bring us back to it a few scenes later to see the final results. That’s like Jason Voorhees only knocking off one camp counselor—off-screen—in the first hour of a Friday the 13th film. Fine if you’re making a gruesome police procedural—which is what Spiral tends to come off as—not so much if you want to please Saw fans. Instead of a clever game with an array of players, Spiral plays out more like a slow, investigative thriller with the occasional bloody bits, following Zeke and William around as Jigsaw leads them to various crime scenes. Without much for our heroes to really do except wait for Jigsaw to strike next, the mystery in Spiral is like a second-grade level jigsaw puzzle that underwhelms once the pieces come together.
The traps themselves also leave a lot to be desired. Though they all offer the level of cringe-worthy gore we’ve come to expect, most lack the “game” element of figuring out how to win, taking away the very thing that makes the Saw franchise any fun in the first place. That doesn’t mean the traps aren’t memorable, they are, with one in particular that is a cut above the rest. Just don’t expect much excitement to go along with them.
Spiral is commendable in its effort to do something a little different and go back to the murder mystery element that was so prevalent in the original, but with a rather basic police procedural setup, poor pacing and a lack of iconic elements, this Saw sequel can’t escape the feeling that it’s missing one too many important pieces.
Spiral arrives in theaters from Lionsgate on May 14th.
By Matt Konopka
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