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Non-Review Review: Spiral – From the Book of Saw

Spiral: From the Book of Saw is an interesting, if dysfunctional, franchise extension.

The obvious point of contrast is something like Jigsaw, the last attempt to restart the Saw franchise. Jigsaw was released in 2017, two years after Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, and it bet big on a particular kind of nostalgia. It was a film that consciously aspired to evoke the memory of the Saw franchise among an audience that had probably seen an entry or two in the franchise a decade earlier and had vague memories of the experience.

Rocking the boat.

Jigsaw offered a much more polished take on the Saw template, eschewing the grimy green and grey aesthetic of the previous seven films in favour of a crisp sheen. Still, the film worked very hard to demonstrate its affection and veneration for the source material, even while offering superficial updates like moving the action into the countryside and swapping blades for lasers. The company logos at the start of Jigsaw appeared over a remix of Hello Zepp. Billy the Puppet got a makeover. Tobin Bell got considerable screentime as John Kramer, and the film tied itself to his back story and history.

Spiral takes a very different approach to its nostalgia. The film is the first in the series not to feature the character of John Kramer. Billy the Puppet has also been retired. While a variation on Hello Zepp does eventually play, Spiral holds it back and makes the audience wait for the pay-off. Spiral is very much part of the larger Saw franchise, and contains the requisite death traps and even brings back director Darren Lynn Bousman, but it feels like a consciously pared down and “back to basics” approach to the franchise that strips out a lot of the clutter that has accrued over the franchise’s long life span.

Bloody horrific.

This is most notable with the film’s sharp genre shift. While all of the earlier Saw movies had some procedural element that followed law enforcement’s efforts to track down and stop the serial killer, Spiral centres this thread. Spiral is arguably a forensic thriller with gory elements, rather than a gory horror with a dash of forensic thriller for flavour. It’s a clear attempt at a fresh start, with Spiral even relegating the Saw brand to the subtitle while leaning more heavily on the spiral and pig imagery that was largely secondary in the original franchise.

The result is fascinating, even if it doesn’t quite work. Spiral is arguably a “back to basics” take on the Saw franchise, going so back to basics that it draws more heavily from the serial killer thrillers that originally inspired Saw than it does from the Saw movies themselves.

 

Ironically for a sequel to a horror franchise inescapably rooted in the Bush era, Spiral plays as something of a dysfunctional nineties throwback. The movie stars Chris Rock, arguably the defining stand-up comedian of the decade. Rock even began his transition into cinema towards the end of the decade, with roles in movies like Kevin Smith’s Dogma or Betty Thomas’ Doctor Doolittle. His big break arguably came in Lethal Weapon 4, when he was cast as a young detective and potential son-in-law to Detective Martin Riggs, played by Danny Glover.

There’s a potentially interesting connection there, given that Glover was arguably the biggest star in the original Saw, playing the role of Detective David Tapp. However, Spiral casts Rock in the role of Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks, the son of former Police Chief Marcus Banks. Banks is played by Samuel L. Jackson, another performer inexorably tied to nineties pop culture through his work in classics like Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, The Negotiator and many more.

“Wait, the 1994 Best Picture nominee you were discussing was Forrest Gump? No wonder you have dad issues.”

There are times when Spiral feels like a nineties nostalgia piece. Zeke is introduced with an extended monologue discussing the relative merits of Forrest Gump, one of the defining films of the nineties. (“Where’s Gump 2?” Zeke demands, as if to imply that the twenty-first century has passed him by completely.) Spiral even closes with a rap theme song by 21 Savage built around a recognisable music cue from the franchise, feeling like a throwback to a particular kind of nineties blockbuster.

This nostalgia is not incidental. Although the Saw franchise came to be defined – fairly or not – as “torture porn”, writer Leigh Whannell and director James Wan were clearly inspired by movies like David Fincher’s se7en when constructing the original entry in the series. Spiral is arguably so committed to its “back-to-basics” aesthetic that it feels much more of a piece with the nineties wave of serial killer thrillers that emerged in the wake of The Silence of the Lambs; movies like Kiss the Girls, The Cell, The Bone Collector and so many more.

Getting back on track.

As with The Little Things from earlier in the year, Spiral feels like a strange nostalgic tribute to a genre that has largely fallen by the wayside as Hollywood has shifted towards superhero blockbusters and recognisable brand extensions. Spiral runs on the clichés and conventions of these films, with the script often powered by familiar elements aligned with a minimum of fuss or creative effort. There is very little in Spiral that hasn’t been done many times before and many times better.

Zeke is introduced working an undercover case with no back-up. His superior, Captain Angie Garza, aggressively chews Zeke out for his refusal to cooperate with his fellow officers. “You’re off on you’re on own, as usual, no back-up, nothing,” she yells, stopping just short of calling Zeke a “loose cannon” who needs to learn to operate “by the book.” Zeke retorts, “No back-up because there’s nobody on the force I can fucking trust.” Garza warns him, “From now on, you’re going to learn to be a team player.”

Up against the wall.

Naturally, Garza immediately partners the cynical veteran with a naive young recruit. Detective William Schenk is an enthusiastic young family man who provides a sharp contrast with his more world-weary colleague. Zeke offers all sorts of jaded life advice, but the two inevitably form a mutual respect and admiration, particularly as the world aligns against them. Zeke balances all of this with the issues stemming from an uncomfortable relationship with his retired father, who casts a very long shadow.

Spiral is not a particularly subtle or nuanced movie. Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger labours its exposition, having characters continuously yelling facts about their positions and their relationships to properly orient the audience, demonstrating remarkably little faith in the viewer to situate themselves without such heavy-handed dialogue. In case the audience doesn’t understand that Zeke has a very tortured relationship with his father, the script has Zeke yell to Garza, “Stop making this about my father.”

They just need to hang out more.

These scripting problems hinder Spiral in a number of crucial ways. Most obviously, Spiral is an intensely predictable movie. It is incredibly easy to predict every major plot twist in Spiral. None of this has to do with any evidence or set-up within the movie itself, but instead based simply on the structure and the flow of the film. When Spiral provides the audience with information, it does so repeatedly and loudly. Any sufficiently attuned audience member will be able to recognise the information that the movie is foregrounding as important, and assemble it in the only logical fashion.

Fifteen minutes into Spiral, knowing nothing more than the information that the film provides and the standard flow of movies like this, it is possible to piece together the rough outline of the movie’s big reveals. Seemingly minor characters that are given a lot of screentime inevitably become parts of hidden back stories, photos that are discussed but not shown inevitably reveal familiar faces in a relatively small cast, events that the movie chooses not to depict via flashback or video recording are inevitably falsified.

Going around in circles.

Spiral is ironically something of a closed loop. There is nothing within the movie that does not exist as a potential plot mechanic. When a seemingly minor police officer is introduced with a distinctive facial scar, it becomes a matter of time until the movie offers a flashback to the events in which that officer received the scar, because those events are inevitably tied to the plot mechanics of Spiral. There is no sense that anything in the film exists outside of how it fits with everything else in the film.

This wouldn’t be a major problem, but Spiral is a Saw sequel. A large part of the appeal of the Saw franchise lies with the insane hooks and twists that the movies take, often disregarding internal logic and rational thought in order to surprise the audience. Many of these twists don’t make sense, but they are often surprisingly effective because they are quite difficult to predict on first watch. Spiral attempts to pull off a third act reveal, complete with revelatory montage, but the twists are so straightforward that it feels underwhelming. The audience has already figured out the reveal, so there’s no need to replay all the set-up.

“I want to play a USB stick.”

The scripting issues lead to another problem, one that is arguably reflective of a wider problem with many of these reboots and sequels. Spiral is a movie that gestures at weighty and timely themes around police corruption and violence. One of the reasons that Zeke exists at odds with many of his colleagues is because he took a stand against institutional corruption, testifying against an officer who murdered a suspect. Spiral is built around the emergence of a Jigsaw copycat that is explicitly and aggressively targeting corrupt cops.

Spiral returns repeatedly to the question of police corruption and brutality. There are repeated allusions to something called “Section 8”, which gave law enforcement wide-reaching powers to bring law and order to the anonymous metropolitan area in which the film is set. In terms of the franchise continuity, it’s a choice that makes a certain amount of sense in the context of something like Saw 3D, the last entry in the original film series. Saw 3D featured a terrorist attack on the police force, with some suggestion of panic over the violence. The idea that those events were used to justify police overreach is quite clever.

Hack work.

This is not a bad hook for a Saw sequel, especially in the current charged climate. Indeed, there’s something very interesting in how both The Little Things and Spiral riff on the tropes and conventions of the nineties forensic thriller while adopting a much more skeptical approach to the law enforcement community. It’s an interesting note that resonates in the modern era, particularly in the context of films that are consciously styling themselves as nostalgic throwbacks.

However, Spiral is uncomfortably self-satisfied with itself for embracing this angle, acting as if this is some sort of crazy revelation. Spiral insists that it exists at a remove from the previous entries in the franchise, rather than building upon them. “John Kramer didn’t target cops,” Zeke argues at one point, ignoring much of the franchise’s history and continuity. Director Darren Lynn Bousman previously directed Saw II and Saw IV, movies in which John Kramer explicitly targeted Detective Eric Matthews and Officer Daniel Rigg. In fact, he specifically targeted Matthews for his corruption.

Badge of dishonour.

Similarly, the killer inevitably justifies their rampage by insisting that they are simply applying a grander version of John Kramer’s philosophy, scaling upwards as part of a larger political statement. “John Kramer was right,” the killer boasts. “The spiral. The symbol of change, evolution, progress. Why limit that to an individual when you can apply it to a whole system?” This ignores the fact that many of the later Saw movies were built around that idea. In Saw V, a bunch of characters responsible for a larger systemic failure are locked in a death trap. In Saw VI, Kramer targets the health insurance industry.

This is not an argument that Spiral needs to be completely original or break completely with what came before. It’s just distracting how Spiral insists on its own creativity and ingenuity while largely just retreading familiar ground, and how it makes that familiar ground seem novel by effectively erasing earlier explorations of these themes. The fact that Kramer targeted cops in both Saw II and Saw IV doesn’t make Spiral any less interesting, but Spiral‘s inability to acknowledge that it’s not breaking new ground does mean the movie feels weirdly self-satisfied for doing the bare minimum.

A cut above or below?

Spiral doesn’t necessarily have anything particularly interesting to say about the topics that it broaches, the question of systemic corruption and police brutality. Instead, it feels like a calculated hot-button issue for the franchise, one that it never develops in a particularly interesting or compelling direction. The movie feels strangely self-important for its handling of a very cartoonish version of police brutality, occasionally even feeling like the most literal interpretation of the “bad apples” argument.

Spiral is clumsy and awkward. It’s a refreshingly novel approach to a classic horror franchise, but ultimately feels like a much lesser version of the movies that it is emulating while also feeling like it missed the most interesting aspects of the movies that it’s following. Spiral should be expanding outwards, but instead collapses into itself.

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