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The Saw Film That Isn't Saw || 'Spiral' (2021) Movie Review

Spiral (2021, dir. Darren Lynn Bousman) is the 9th installment of the Saw franchise and follows the story of a copycat Jigsaw killer who is targeting corrupt law enforcement. Detective Zeke Banks (played by Chris Rock) and his partner Detective Schenk (played by Max Minghella) are on the case in this film where there’s not much to say plot wise that doesn’t sound like a copy and paste of the last handful of Saw films. It’s a Saw movie (technically) and because of that it does follow the formula of, “There’s a Jigsaw killer and we have to catch them” with maybe one or two new plot devices taking place, if that.

I ended up watching Spiral directly after Jigsaw because the latter had filled me with at least some semblance of hope that these two newer films wouldn’t be as bad as expected. And for the case of Jigsaw, this was true – it wasn’t the best but it was fine. Spiral, however, is a giant “screw you” to the franchise and throws everything that makes Saw what it is out the window without a single care. I have never seen a movie that so egregiously ignores all the installments that came before it to the point that one begins to wonder if those behind Spiral have ever sat down to watch any Saw film. Which is ironic and sad to say because director Darren Lynn Bousman was in charge of two of the best installments – Saw II & III. But for some reason there’s just something about Spiral which feels as if it were put together by people who don’t understand the Saw franchise and I believe it’s because of how focused the narrative is on what the detectives and cops are doing. Actually, it only focuses on the police working on the case and nothing else, where a typical Saw film (even Jigsaw) will have a balance between the tests taking place and law enforcement trying to stop the game before it ends (or, at least catching the apprentice). In other words, someone looked at the franchise and said, “Wow, this is cool and all, but what if we removed 90% of the gore and replaced it with law enforcement working” then proceeded to make Spiral.

Which leads me to the biggest complaint I have with this movie – I got the impression that Spiral was sending a political pro-cop message to its audience. It’s not because the film is focused on the police department, but because the narrative itself is structured in a way that glorifies cops, even corrupt ones. There’s this unsaid notion throughout the film that suggests the corrupt cops who were placed within traps didn’t deserve it and this is only strengthened by the fact that the antagonist is a person who experienced cruel and unjust police brutality and wants reform. This antagonist, who had to watch one of their parents being shot by a cop in their own home for no reason, is painted as an unhinged psychopath who is solidly in the wrong with no nuance. By contrast, every police officer is put in this heroic light where even if they’ve done something unconstitutional and/or cruel they’re still the “good guy” in this film – which is where another large issue comes into play.

Many of the Saw films are nuanced, or gray in the sense that the morality of characters in the franchise are good, bad, neither, or both and that causes a lot of discussion for philosophy and different angles of vision. However, Spiral sees the world in black and white and not even in a way which adheres to the previous 8 films. In fact, Spiral completely goes against what the series stands for which is unconventional justice, spiritual awakenings, and the question of what good and evil truly mean just to name a few common themes in the series. Where the Saw films can have audiences ask themselves to reconsider what they understand a good or bad person to be, Spiral looks at the bodies of the morally corrupt and, because they have a shiny badge that should make them “good”, says to the audience, “These poor victims, we must protect them. This is the worst thing a Jigsaw killer has ever done.”

Of course, I cannot have this discussion without pointing out the asinine line Chris Rock’s character delivers, which also solidified my hatred for this film and only further highlights that the team behind this has never experienced a Saw movie (again, ironic). Zeke and Detective Schenk are discussing the Jigsaw case in a restaurant, brainstorming who could be behind it and especially targeting the cops so heavily. When Schenk suggests one of John’s disciples (side note: they’re apprentices, not disciples; John is not a religious figure), Zeke responds saying, “John Kramer didn’t target cops.” Excuse me? I’m sorry, but what? Someone didn’t do their homework because John and his apprentices constantly messed with the cops. Zeke says John didn’t go after cops – so I guess that means Saw II and IV didn’t happen. Also, if the argument is that John didn’t go after cops so why would any of his apprentices – explain Amanda and Hoffman. The two main apprentices throughout the entire franchise brutally went after detectives and cops, to the point that most of the time the law enforcement characters were placed in unwinnable traps, or traps where it’s impossible for the victims to free themselves. If memory serves correct, Hoffman (who started as a detective) went after an FBI agent in Saw V and attempted framing the agent for his own actions. So, I would like to know what parallel universe Spiral takes place in where John, Amanda, and Hoffman ever believed cops were off limits. Not only is Zeke’s statement easily disproved by the rest of the franchise, but it also doesn’t fit into John’s M.O. (modus operandi), or pattern of operation.

The Saw franchise has roots within philosophical discussion, specifically on humanity and the nuance of good and evil, to the point where it can be possible to write a scholarly essay on the films. While extremist and sometimes twisted, John Kramer at his core sought to help and heal the individuals placed in his traps. He took people who were morally corrupt or careless about life and asked them how much the pain they inflict onto others, onto the innocent, is worth. He asks them to look inwards and reflect on how their actions affect their communities. And while crazy, one also can’t say that John’s method is 100% wrong as it worked for Amanda along with a variety of other survivors showcased in the 7th film Saw 3D. Additionally, John carried out his mission by testing people no matter their creed, race, sexuality, background, or status in society. He went after addicts as much as doctors, or criminals as much as cops. John didn’t discriminate against who he believed needed retribution – everyone and anyone could be one of his test subjects. I would love the writers of Spiral to explain how Jigsaw doesn’t go after cops. I would absolutely love to hear it when everything in the franchise states otherwise.

To conclude by saying at least one good thing about Spiral, I liked the traps a lot. They were unique designs which offered very brutal and satisfying kills; I would also argue that they’re memorable as they're traps we haven't seen before, nor are they predictable. Although, for an installment of a series like Saw, which has been dubbed by many as “torture porn,” Spiral spends the least amount of time on traps as possible. Yes, I enjoyed the traps, but that’s out of a total of four traps the film gave us. A Saw film with only four traps and 30-40 minutes of nothingness between each trap. Spiral wants the glory of being a Saw movie but has taken away every element of Saw right down to the most simple trait – the traps. There is nothing about this film that even whispers “Saw” and if there weren’t red spiral imagery or an idiot in a pig mask it would be completely unrecognizable as part of the series. From the plot to the traps to the philosophy, Spiral is not a Saw film.

Spiral F Tier

Perhaps it’s my own bias as a super fan which has caused Spiral to receive the lowest possible score on my grading scale. However, I feel it warranted because if one is going to claim a movie is part of a well-established franchise that’s nearly 20 years old, then it should align with the rest of the series. Even though Spiral’s subtitle is “From the Book of Saw” (suggesting this is a simple side story), it doesn’t follow any standards of a Saw film and fans are expected to accept it as the 9th installment – as if it’s not a side story but is canon. I will never accept Spiral as canon because there’s nothing present that establishes it within the canon already provided. Spiral is the Halloween III of the Saw franchise. Except, Halloween III succeeds as its own, stand alone film because it never danced around trying to be a Michael Myers picture and it followed the initial intentions for the Halloween franchise. Spiral wants to have its cake and eat it by being its own thing yet desperately clinging to the title of Saw. If it wants to be a Saw picture, it’s going to be held to the standard of the previous 8 films and it fails in every category. Finally, I can’t believe we get someone cool in a Saw film – Samuel L. Jackson – and it has to be this one. How enraging.

Spiral is available for streaming on Hulu and Amazon Prime Video.

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