I have a confession: I have never seen a single Saw film.
It’s an (embarrassing) fact that makes me both the best and worst person to review Spiral: From the Book of Saw, the ninth and newest movie in the grisly series. My lack of knowledge is a strength: I’m one of the uninitiated viewers Darren Lynn Bousman, the film’s director, and Chris Rock, its lead and an executive producer, hope to — per press notes — lure into the franchise. “I don’t really look at Spiral as the next Saw film,” Rock says. “We’re actually starting over and heading in an entirely different direction with this movie.”
It’s also a weakness: In one interview, Bousman referred to the film as a “best of,” meaning it takes threads from previous chapters, weaves them together and serves them up to a dedicated and enthusiastic fanbase (which I am not a part of).
This latest macabre installment sprang from the mind of Rock, who told Michael Burns, the vice chairman of Lionsgate, how much he loved Saw and wanted to star in a new iteration. That conversation eventually culminated in Rock and Bousman, who directed three previous Saw films (II, III and IV), teaming up to create a legitimately frightening, if unevenly paced, detective thriller.
Spiral takes place in a universe haunted by the legacy of Jigsaw (aka John Kramer, the sadistic antagonist whose obsession with testing people’s will to live drives the series) and begins on the fourth of July in an unnamed city that feels eerily like New York. At a parade, off-duty Detective Marv Bozwick (Daniel Petronijevic) chases a thief into a sewer pipe. There, Bozwick is attacked by a mysterious figure in a pig mask. When he wakes up, Bozwick finds himself in a subway tunnel, suspended in midair with his tongue in what I can only describe as a strange, ghastly torture device. A voice from a recorded message offers him an ultimatum familiar to fans: Bozwick can rip his tongue out and live or get hit by an incoming train and die.
I wish I could give a detailed account of how Bozwick dies or dissect the realistic nature of the tongue-torture device, but as a famously squeamish person I covered my eyes. When the screams stopped, I looked up and saw a single, haunting shot of a purple-pink tongue. A tongue that I’m still thinking about. Do with that information what you will.
Meanwhile, Detective Zeke Banks (Rock) is leading an undercover — and, we later learn, unsanctioned — drug raid. This sequence does more to foreground the visual language of the film, expertly overseen by DP Jordan Oram, than add anything substantive to the plot. Oram, whom many will know as the cinematographer behind Drake’s music videos, deftly melds the grimness of horror with the energy of a dark, moody rap video.
The raid goes terribly wrong, leading to a tense confrontation between Banks and the head of his force, Capt. Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols). (This scene, in which it’s revealed that everyone hates Banks because he turned in a corrupt cop, feels rushed, with both Garza and Rock delivering their lines at a distracting, incongruous speed — too slow to feel like natural, propulsive cross-talk, too fast to register as seriously dramatic.) To keep Banks in line, Garza partners him with Detective William Schenk (Max Minghella), an endearing rookie, and tasks the pair with investigating the train crime scene. Banks reluctantly heads to the tracks, where he realizes that the dead man is, in fact, his closest, and perhaps only, friend on the force.
Back at the precinct, a Jigsaw copycat delivers a message: “I am here to help reform the metro police,” he says. How? By systematically killing the corrupt cops — the ones who carelessly murdered civilians, tampered with evidence and lied under oath.
The creepy message prompts Garza to escalate the case and put the entire team to work — much to the chagrin of Banks, who understandably doesn’t trust any of his colleagues. Here, Spiral becomes a full-fledged procedural, sprinkled with horror elements. Banks and Schenk work tirelessly to track down the copycat, but unfortunately for them, Jigsaw Lite is always one step ahead of the game. His trademark tests against the victims become increasingly convoluted and terrifying (choose your fingers or your life, your skin or your life, your spinal cord or… you get the picture), leading Banks to eventually ask his dad, Marcus Banks, former head of the Metro Police (played by Samuel L. Jackson), for help.
With these two formidable actors front and center, the father-son relationship seems rich in dramatic possibility. On paper, at least, the two characters’ backstories — Marcus helmed the force during the height of its corruption — are ideal fodder for a textured rendering of a fraught familial bond; though it’s clear Zeke has more integrity than his dad, he’s also desperate for approval. But the screenplay never satisfyingly digs into those potential tensions, instead relying on tired father/son-conflict clichés: Zeke worries he’ll embarrass Marcus, Marcus doesn’t see Zeke as reliable, and we’ve all been here before.
Spiral delivers when it comes to gore, if that’s your thing, and appropriately dour aesthetics — but not much else. That’s a shame, because the story’s themes, from the unreformable nature of the police department to the cost of integrity in a space that values power above all else, could not be more relevant. If the mission was, as Bousman has suggested, to create a Saw film driven by a strong narrative instead of gruesome torture, it hasn’t been fully accomplished.
The movie also leaves a sour after-taste by somehow still ending with a Black man dying at the hands of police. Spiral may want to shake things up, but there’s nothing new about that image.