Directed By Darren Lynn Bousman
Starring – Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan David Jones
The Plot – Working in the shadow of his father, an esteemed police veteran (Jackson), brash Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Rock) and his rookie partner (Max Minghella) take charge of a grisly investigation into murders that are eerily reminiscent of the city’s gruesome past. Unwittingly entrapped in a deepening mystery, Zeke finds himself at the center of the killer’s morbid game.
Rated R for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, pervasive language, some sexual references and brief drug use
– Invigorating style. As it turns out, the desire to bring this franchise back to life isn’t just a pandering cash grab, but a reimagining in terms of presentation that occasionally proves that less is more. This is in reference to the typical editing scheme for the franchise, which exaggerates every aspect of the movie’s editing in a way that made the previous films a headache to endure. For this film, the exaggerating is still there for the torture sequences, but it’s used in a way that is noticeably less offensive to the interpretation, and giving us a series of sequences that just let the movements of the character tell the story instead of some post production hype machine that oversteps its creative boundaries. In addition to this, the cinematography and aesthetics for the film are a personal high for the franchise, incorporating color and slick movements of the camera that not only play into police procedural unfolding at every turn, but also cements an ideal that this was anything but another paint by numbers installment where consistency in style isn’t what’s best for the integrity of the franchise.
– Intriguing story. Even with five torture sequences deposited sporadically throughout the film, the abundance of the story remains faithfully focused on the whodunit? side of the narrative, which is a humble homecoming for the franchise back to the roots of the original film that supplanted an equally sharp story to the barrage of brutality it hurls at the screen. This not only paces out the gore better to keep it from feeling redundant or less effective, but also allows us to interpret matters in the same way the detectives in the film do, where everyone and everything is playing into a bigger picture. The narrative itself isn’t anything groundbreaking in terms of storytelling, but it does play candidly to the psychological thriller side of the genre sampling, feeling like another one of “Se7en” biggest admirers in terms of inspiration. It gives the ninth installment in an already cluttered franchise a reason to exist that transcends the unnecessary tag of torture porn, all the while supplanting a story that is every bit intriguing as it is timely relevant for the social commentary it cleverly unloads along the way.
– Ferocious bite. When the script does transition over to the horror elements of its encompassing, it proves that four years since “Jigsaw” has given the writers and producers plenty of time to juggle the dark side of their creativity. In doing so, we are treated to some grueling tests of endurance that effectively get under the skin of their audience, matching intensity with originality, as nothing included feels derivative or cheap when compared to its competition within this film and the others. That’s not to say that “Spiral” has the most painful traps that I’ve seen in the franchise, just that it understands the psychology of how to poke and prod at its audience, all the while fleshing out a vulnerability that very few horror films can match in terms of consistency to its characters. The film gets off to a riveting start with its bloodiest sequence of the entire movie, setting the pace for what’s to follow with a series grizzly gruesome macabre to balance the strategy of a good old fashioned police procedural. I was hooked in more ways that one.
– Unorthodox pawns. The first production notes that I heard about the film was the casting of Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson as a son and father duo respectively at the forefront of the film’s narrative, and despite there being a mere 16 year difference between the two in terms of age, what they lack in believability they more than make up for in fleshing out distinct personalities that is satisfyingly endearing for their otherwise lack of characterization. For Rock, it’s a chance to keep the momentum after season 4 of FX’s “Fargo”, balancing a dark, depraved familiarity in sense of humor with a deep underlining of dramatic muscle that we’re unfortunately only experiencing most recently. Rock’s most distinguishing features as Ezekiel is not only an intelligence for understanding and interpreting a situation, but also the allegiance to heart that has often been the bare of a career of regret for how his peers see him, giving him a satisfying empathy that is very unorthodox when compared to other protagonists within this universe. Jackson is less memorable because of a minimal allowance of screen time, but the disconnecting chemistry between he and Rock speaks volumes to the strain that their police careers have put on their relationship dynamic, and the overall lack of screen time intentionally keeps us from getting to know him in the same vein that his son truly never does.
– Originality. Part of what works for my experience with “Spiral” was in acknowledging the legacy left by John Kramer or Jigsaw as many knew him by, but doing so without crafting just another follower story to further stretch the convolution that was taken too far in eight previous films along the way. In this respect, the killer does have a credible motivation for doing what they do that is every bit easy to comprehend and interpret ,like John’s, without fully justifying its measure of taking the law into their own hands. Both antagonists present sacrifice as a means to escape their victim’s dreaded dispositions, but it’s this current incarnation that feels a bit personal between the threats, immediately conveying despair within current instances that proves this person’s close proximity to the many victims that have played into the bigger picture. On the topic of the ending, there’s many ways to interpret it that could allow this to be the first in a new series of films, or the lone necessary instance where justice was served. For my money, I love the ambiguity, as life’s problems are rarely ever solved completely with finality.
– Easter eggs. As previously established, “Spiral” isn’t an installment that wholeheartedly relies on the weight and influence of the previous installments, but with that said it does garner with it a series of satisfying winks and nods to those of us paying maximum attention to the film. There’s obvious John Kramer references in the dialogue of the investigation, but also familiarity established within a couple of the traps that I couldn’t help but devilishly chuckle at, especially considering how they are resolved with little to no dramatic pull, proving that this is anything but your daddy’s Saw, and that something deeper lurks behind the swerve up front. There’s also a couple of audible nods to who I feel is the MVP of this entire Saw franchise, and that’s musical composer Charlie Clouser’s, whose “Hello Zep” composition has become one of the most legendary in terms of horror familiarity. Clouser is the composer here for “Spiral” as well, but his compositions differ dramatically from the previous film, until the shifts take shape later on, and we’re audibly reminded once more of how these world’s tie together thanks in whole to the brilliance of the one orchestrating pulling the strings behind the scenes.
– Tonal trepidation. While I appreciated the welcomed instances of levity involving Rock’s character unloading personality on a series of experiences and evidence, I was regretfully disappointed in the abundance of its necessity to the finished product of the film. This not only periodically cuts the tension of the movie’s suspense in half, but also feels like an open mic night for Chris considering how long these diatribes continue to cut into other scenes. This is most evident in the movie’s opening act, when he and his rookie partner investigate a crime scene, and instead of learning backstory on the situation, we are treated to a five minute session on why being a police officer sucks. Moments of levity are often found in a single solitary line of dialogue that equally plays into the mayhem of the situation, but these momentum halting instances do more than enough to shift this film to a full fledged comedy at times, which is the last thing that I want in a Saw movie all together.
– Diminishing mystery. This won’t be a problem for everyone, undoubtedly, as some moviegoers simply catch onto things a lot quicker than others, but for my money the movie’s big reveal was easily telegraphed from yours truly fifteen minutes into the film. Without spoiling anything, I will say that a series of bare basic horror tropes that you learn on day one of your first experience with a horror movie present themselves in the film, and immediately my curiosity halted with evidential obviousness that constantly kept me one hour ahead of the film at all times. It’s especially condensed when you consider that there’s only a few characters that we come to know and experience within the first two acts, and when a majority of them start losing their lives along the way, there’s only so many avenues of exploration that it could possibly seek. That’s the ‘Who’, but the ‘Why’ is completely unattainable, hiding evidence from the audience in a way that they couldn’t possibly piece together with such immense gaps of exposition missing between. Thankfully, the thrills were enough to keep my eyes glued to the film, but the absence of a mystery to this newest chapter, and one that is a reset button in the franchise, stands as the lone instance throughout the Saw franchise where I accurately predicted everything to follow.
– Lazy script. Imagine that, a Saw movie with dwindled execution between the pages of its origin. All jokes aside, the dialogue is stuffed full of cliche’s and obviousness that do no favors to the actors sprouting them, instead coming off like a series of one-note instances pertaining to the one-dimensional aspect that make up a bulk of the movie’s characterization. In addition to this, the unraveling of the narrative itself occasionally gets distorted with a series of heavy-handed flashbacks and laughably bad prosthetics work to articulate youth that unnecessarily convoluted the narrow storytelling that was previously promised in the foreground. It halts momentum when the movie needed to capitalize on it the most, draining the well dry for a series of sequences that feel like more has already happened in the past than currently taking shape in the present. Finally, while I did appreciate the twist of the ending and what it represents in the context of this police department, I feel like the delivery of such was a little abrupt in its execution, straining to the point that it becomes rushed when placed directly after the scene that it accompanies. It never feels like the build up justifies the pay-off in terms of its structure, undercutting the single most important sequence in any Saw film.
– Underwhelming direction. As someone who has directed three previous Saw films, it’s easy to understand why the studio would welcome Bousman with open arms. However, the many criticisms that I have for his guiding hand or lack there of, created several moments of sagging influence with his inspiration, and undersold the more dramatic layers of necessity for the script’s pivotal scenes. Such instances exist within the traps themselves, which are directed a bit abruptly for my taste with very little struggle in between. This is doubled down on during the exposition instances, particularly in the film’s opening introduction to Rock’s character, where he mumbles down the problems of the police force, the city hanging in the balance, and the backstory of eight previous films during what is arguably the heaviest exposition dump that I have experienced in all of 2021. Finally, even with the focus on social commentary that has been most noticeably missing since the initial installment, there’s a mishandling of the platform that only approaches police injustice at a face value instead of the abundance of exploration needed to properly sell its place in this story. Because of such, we spot reflection early on, but it never evolves into something substantial that we the audience can take with us, serving as the biggest frustration to Bousman’s lukewarm vision.
My Grade: 6/10 or C