(SPIRAL premieres in theaters on June 18th)
Another year, another game
I admit, I gave up on the SAW franchise somewhere around part four or five. Whichever one was in 3D. The series, which began as the coldly effective no-budget chiller way back in the early oughts, had lost its way. While the initial concept – a serial killer tortures terrible people to make them see the error of their ways – remained intriguing, it was buried under so much nonsensical mythology I couldn’t keep up.
So after nearly a decade of avoiding the films, I entered SPIRAL with some trepidation and curiosity. Much of that is thanks to Chris Rock, serving as producer and originator for the reboot. His presence is surprising — like finding out that Jim Carrey loves the band Cannibal Corpse — mostly because Rock is rarely seen as a dramatic actor, even as he’s dipped his toes in the waters, notably with FARGO earlier this year.
Chris Rock in fine form
But it takes him a while to get going, and for the first half-hour of SPIRAL, there’s a genuine concern Rock isn’t up to the task. With his persistently bewildered expression, he attacks every scene with an urgency that isn’t there, leaving every part feeling like a proclamation for nothing. Other moments leverage his on-stage persona, including a pointless and wildly uncomfortable rant about how you shouldn’t trust women.
Power through the opening, though, and Rock finds his groove. It’s still not a great performance, but certainly miles better than we’ve seen in any SAW film to date. At times, it even feels like this might turn out as an actual movie. All the scenes involving the actual procedural are engaging, and returning director Darren Lynn Bousman lifts precisely the right elements from better films to make it all work.
The plot, which you’ll figure out within a half-hour, centers around Rock’s loose-cannon detective, who works in a crooked precinct under attack by a Jigsaw copycat killer. The victims are flimsy archetypes, and you hardly get to know any of them before the bloodletting starts. Which begs the question, why even bother with the elaborate buildup?
And then SPIRAL hits the wall by remembering it’s supposed to be a SAW film. It happens around 45 minutes into the picture, and SPIRAL never recovers from it. The initial mystery turns into a case of “guess the dumbest plot twist possible to win,” and any semblance of coherence or internal logic flies out the window.
What’s worse is the film doesn’t need to do this. It has the opportunity to break free and create something new for itself, and it squanders that opportunity. Singular elements toy with interesting (even exciting) angles, like at what point does vigilantism towards a corrupt organization become just. But Bousman shirks away from any answers that could potentially endanger easy box office.
Instead, SPIRAL turns into yet another exercise of cheap thrills and lazy, sadistic gore that isn’t thrilling because it lacks empathy. The first SAW impressed because of its low-key stakes, with a hacksaw and a foot bringing the house down. Here, the puzzles are convoluted to the point they make little sense when you think about them for a second longer.
Even the deaths, which initially weren’t the draw in the series, feel weirdly fetishized. Bousman takes gleeful pleasure in staging horrific acts from severed limbs to gunshot wounds but leaves the audience dangling with the aftermath. It’s not over-the-top enough to be funny or satiric, nor gorey enough for grindhouse, nor realistic to make a point. Instead, everything lingers with a sickening feeling that is neither rewarding nor life-affirming.
Round and round
It’s not like the SAW films were ever high art or even particularly noteworthy in their genre. But the first few at least felt like they were human. Then, as with all horror films that make a decent profit, the series quickly became a parody of itself. Six years ago, it was only a few films away from the inevitable spacefaring setting.
So when SPIRAL takes itself very seriously for its first half, I fully expected a reinvention. I welcomed it. But for whatever reason, be it cold feet from investors or the makers themselves, SPIRAL chickens out by the end. It takes the easy way out, ensuring a win at the box office, but leaves the franchise in the same pit it tried to escape.
It’s such a wasted effort that recommending even half of it feels hard. Wait for the inevitable Netflix run, and tune out by when there’s half a film left. You won’t miss a thing.