Saw popularized an entire new genre of horror when it premiered in 2004: torture porn. But seven sequels and countless imitators (from Hostile to Human Centipede) failed to recapture the magic of the original, which expertly mixed cringe-inducing violence with a tense plot and a legitimately awesome final twist.
Now, Spiral: From the Book of Saw (that’s the first and only time I’ll be referring to this movie by its official, terrible title) is attempting to not only revive the franchise but maybe even surpass the original. To do so, Spiral injects the series one thing it’s never had: a political message. (Well, three things if you count Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson.)
To put it bluntly: Jigsaw is back, and he’s here to defund the police.
Spiral stars Rock as Zeke Banks, a detective who’s been ostracized by his fellow cops after he turned in his old partner for killing an innocent civilian. Zeke’s father Marcus (Jackson) is the precinct's retired police chief, and Max Minghella (Handmaid’s Tale) plays the rookie cop assigned to work with Zeke.
The story begins when a Jigsaw copycat (the original killer, John Kramer, died back in Saw III) starts trapping cops in grisly torture devices designed to remove body parts or kill them entirely. (There’s always a choice, but everyone always dies anyway.) However, we quickly learn that each murdered police officer was guilty of abusing their power in some way, whether that meant shooting an unarmed teenager at a traffic stop or helping to cover up those crimes.
It’s hard to ignore the clear allusions to Black Lives Matter and the movement to reform, defund, or abolish the police that swept the United States and the world during the summer of 2020. Police officers in Spiral nostalgically discuss an old law called “Article 8” that gave them free rein to clean up their city by any means necessary, which feels like a direct reference to real-life laws like Qualified Immunity that shield cops from answering for their behavior while on the job.
Rock pitched the idea for Spiral to Lionsgate studio and contributed to the script, but has yet to comment on its political message. However, director Darren Lynn Bousman did say the following in an interview with Esquire:
“Coming in this time, I think the idea was about institutions and corrupt institutions, and the police not being the only corrupt institution. That institution could be pharma, it could be churches, it could be police. But instead of going after individuals, we were going after institutions.”
Sure, Spiral could have been about any of those things (and maybe the sequel will jump to another corrupt system), but this movie isn’t shy about taking aim at the police. Its 95-minute runtime is packed full of arguments for why America needs to carefully rethink how police departments are funded and run. There’s virtually zero chance this movie actually changes any of that, but you may find some catharsis in watching all these crooked cops meet their deaths.
If you’re worried that Spiral’s focus on politics means a decrease in violence, don’t be. There’s still plenty of torture porn to be had. Fingers are ripped from hands, hot wax flows out of a faucet onto a woman’s face, and one particularly unfortunate character is suspended by his tongue in front of an oncoming subway train.
The opening scene of Spiral is particularly brutal. If you’re at all squeamish, you may want to show up five minutes late. (You can actually watch that scene now on YouTube, but honestly, don’t.)
I just wish the acting was on par with the politics and violence in Spiral. Rock and Jackson are both talented actors who also enjoy being in bad movies. Unfortunately, they seem to be trying here but still wind up failing. Their strained father-son dynamic is particularly difficult to watch as the two actors trade lines of exposition without ever making us believe they’re actually be related.
To make up for a lousy script and mediocre acting, Bousman (who also directed Saw II, III, and IV) uses every trick at his disposal to show Zeke’s deteriorating mental state as the death count climbs. We get lots of tilted cameras and staccato-edited scenes to make this clear, while Rock does his best to yell convincingly in the front seat of his car.
Spiral is also a pretty capable whodunnit. You should be able to predict the killer’s identity without too much difficulty, but there are still a few twists and turns along the way. I won’t spoil the final reveal, but just like in the original Saw, the ending comes hard and fast.
Whether we get Spiral II is still a mystery (and probably depends on how many people feel comfortable returning to a theater to watch political torture porn as their first post-pandemic movie), but Rock’s made it clear he’s open to doing a sequel. If that happens, I kind of hope the studio takes Bousman’s advice and sets Jigsaw loose on some other corrupt system. And if Chris Rock is already working on a new script, I have one humble suggestion: Jigsaw goes to Washington, D.C.
Spiral premieres in theaters on Friday, May 14.