There’s good news and bad news when it comes to Spiral: From the Book of Saw. The good news is you don’t need to rewatch any of the eight previous Saw films to completely understand what’s going on here. The bad news is, devoid of that dense mythology, the film lacks a much-needed identity and originality. The ending does its best to change that, and there are some good moments along the way. Ultimately, though, the film is a letdown.
Spiral—directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, a veteran of the Saw franchise—stars Chris Rock as Zeke, a police detective loathed by everyone in his precinct because several years prior, he ratted out a dirty cop who killed an unarmed man. He’s forced to take on a new partner, William (The Handmaid’s Tale star Max Minghella), just as a new killer who calls himself Spiral begins targeting victims in elaborate, terrifying contraptions inspired by the Jigsaw killer we came to know in previous films. Jigsaw existed in this universe, and the cops agree Spiral is one of his many copycats, but that’s really the only connection to the originals. In both, an unidentified serial killer is targeting morally reprehensible people with torturous devices meant to teach them a lesson.
With the well-worn Saw plots less prevalent than one might expect, the bulk of Spiral follows Zeke and William around town (and partially their interactions with the current police captain, played by Riverdale’s Marisol Nichols, and the former captain, Zeke’s father, played by Samuel L. Jackson). As a result, the film could more accurately be categorized as a hard-boiled detective film than a horror film. The unlikely partners go from crime scene to crime scene, attempting to unravel Spiral’s clues while bantering about marriage problems and feuds with co-workers. Everyone’s in sweaty button-down shirts with loose ties and sunglasses. The cinematography makes it seem like the sun is always beating down on them. They drink coffee, go undercover, and shuffle papers in conference rooms with evidence thumbtacked up on the walls. Lots of tried-and-true movie cop stuff. All of which becomes so prevalent that when the film does occasionally pivot to a Spiral scene, it’s kind of jarring. “Oh. Right. That’s the movie we’re watching” is a thought likely to cross your mind.
Those scenes, as one would hope and expect, are the best in the entire movie. Spiral director Bousman helmed Saw 2-4, and Spiral’s script is by Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger, who wrote the most recent installment, 2017's Jigsaw. With all that reverence and experience within the Saw franchise, Bousman and the writers create some of the most brutal, disgusting kills we’ve seen yet—real edge of your seat, cover your eyes stuff. If you enjoy your appendages, Spiral will occasionally make you squeamish. The problem is, while the gory Saw scenarios are entertaining, there’s not nearly enough of them, and the rest of the film doesn’t work nearly as well.
In terms of basic plot, Spiral’s clues are all relatively easy for Zeke and William to unravel and red herrings about the big mystery are largely obvious. The cop characters, even the leads, are uninteresting, flat archetypes; most detrimentally, Chris Rock is simply not very good in the film. He’s trying so hard to be so emotional and intense in every scene it feels like he’s in a whole other movie. Yes, his character Zeke is in a serious situation, but ultimately this is a story about a person in a pig mask who kills people with booby traps—only so much seriousness is needed. Rock’s pumped-up performance as a tough guy going through a divorce who’s also on-the-edge rogue cop knocks the whole film out of balance. His best scenes are when he’s more relaxed, human, and Chris Rock-like, tangentially riffing on Forrest Gump or pretending to be a drug addict in order to get a clue. However, those scenes are also few and far between.
Now, you might be thinking, “Samuel L. Jackson has to be a highlight, right?” Well, his aloof, mysterious performance at least fits with the movie’s intended tone, but he’s simply not around enough to have much of an impact. He plays a small, crucial role in the story but the few times he’s on-screen, he basically just walks around with a gun and drops the F-bomb a bunch. Which, admittedly, does buy some goodwill, but not nearly enough.
Without really spoiling anything, in classic Saw fashion, the final few minutes start to put everything together. The recognizable music kicks in. Muted flashbacks fill in the blanks and all is revealed in a way that’s befitting of the franchise. Compared to the other films, Spiral doesn’t have the most shocking of endings, but it might be the most purposeful. You’ll come away from it talking about not just the gory deaths, but what the film is trying to say. Which, let’s be frank, the fact it’s trying to say anything besides “Isn’t this disgusting?” is a win on its own. That the message is also timely and interesting is an added bonus. The end recontextualizes the entire movie in a way that almost makes the bumpy road to get there worth it. Almost.
In a franchise that’s largely known for being overly complex and gruesome with no redeeming values, Spiral goes in the complete opposite direction. It’s got the gruesome stuff but it’s not complex, yet it does have redeeming values. Unfortunately though, by trying to be something simpler, important, and different, Spiral loses much of what made the Saw movies unique and memorable. Those were horror movies with a few cop scenes sprinkled in. This is a below-average cop movie with Saw sprinkled in.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw is in theaters only May 14.
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