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Spiral: From the Book of Saw (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2021)

In a recent interview, Darren Lynn Bousman—the director of Saw II, III, and IV—declared the dawn of a new kind of Saw movie for “grown-ups.” “This time around, the violence, and gore, serve the story . . . story and character came first above all else.” Bousman’s supposedly upgraded reboot, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, promises a thematically meatier version of the notoriously sleazy gorefest. But what made Saw creators Leigh Whannell and James Wan’s franchise—and other “torture porn” films like Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005)—such a novelty back in the mid-2000s went beyond the systematic nature of its torments and precarious puzzlebox situations. (In fact, Saw can be summed up as a parasitic amalgamation of horror film history; its thrills are plucked from B-grade exploitation fare, slashers like Scream, and techno-industrial horror like Vincenzo Natali’s Cube).

The Saw movies marked the entry of extreme nihilism into the mainstream, presenting a sort of totalizing disaffection devoid of character and meaning to the point of absurdity. In this world, the body was mere flesh, a vessel for brute sensation. There were no more heroes, no final girls, no escape. Saw, perhaps unwittingly, captured the zeitgeist in ways that more pedantic fare failed to make resonant. The first installment premiered months after the revelations of U.S. torture at Abu Ghraib prison, which made inescapably evident the violent infrastructure of the War on Terror, and our sadistic disposition toward our invisible and unknowable enemies. In its own sloppy way, the franchise grappled with our heightened culture of witnessing; our increased exposure to real violence mediated by screens loaded with affect.

The first Saw, a kind of police procedural centered around two guys chained up in a bathroom with nothing but a blunt (uh) saw, established the rules. John Kramer a.k.a. Jigsaw, a terminal cancer patient and former civil engineer, places ingrates in elaborate traps that test their will to live. The sacrifice of a limb (usually) ensures survival, and maybe even a new outlook on life. Jigsaw might fit into the lineage of “righteous” serial killers, or the even longer list of morally dubious antiheroes, but the Saw movies really have nothing to do with dispensing justice. It’s true that Jigsaw’s victims are all somehow unclean: they are addicts, adulterers, voyeurs, narcissists; in the first Obama-era entry, Saw VI, the targets are crooked health insurance employees. But like in pornography, these movies use the victims’ moral failings as half-assed alibis for gleeful exhibitions of bodily spectacle. They flout plot coherency and snigger at the notion of character development. They abide by an internal logic: the logic of the game as determined by a puppet master whose fickle whims conveniently perpetuate an increasingly fantastical and self-referential series. Rather than asserting a higher moral order, these movies actually underscore the arbitrary nature of such moral policing. Jigsaw’s victims are essentially sinners in the hands of an angry God, but one whose authority is—Wizard of Oz–style—an obvious scam.

How then does Spiral, purportedly masterminded by Saw superfan Chris Rock, figure in 2021? The Saw movies, shoddily constructed bottom-shelf genre fare that cater to a gamified mentality, would seem to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from “elevated horror”—a term that situates recent popular titles like Get Out, The Witch, and Hereditary against the low-grade variety built on cheap titillation that dominated the box office in the aughts. Sure, there have been several original horror movies in recent years that deserve distinctions, but so too has this trend generated a number of hacky movies whose claims to “elevation” lie in the real-world groundings of their narratives (see: Antebellum, or the 2019 Black Christmas reboot). Spiral, too, attempts an enlightened reinvention of a cashed-out form.

Rock stars as a disgruntled, loud-mouthed cop named Zeke Turner, an outcast among his comically reprehensible coworkers ever since he outed one of their own for murdering an unarmed witness. Zeke is after a new Jigsaw-inspired psychopath who targets the police and signs his work with red spirals. The Spiral killer’s objective is to cleanse a corrupt institution rather than rehabilitate corrupt individuals, which adds a hint of topical pathos to his inventive mutilation of bodies. Beyond the profitability of franchise resurrection, the makers of Spiral—perhaps noting the mainstream proliferation of “Black horror”—locate a new alibi for their violent spectacle: police corruption in the wake of Black Lives Matter.

Spiral certainly delivers on the gruesome promise of the franchise. One victim gets his fingers ripped off before being cooked in a pool of water; another gets her face seared by melting wax as blades rip into her spinal cord. Jigsaw’s weaponry, all rusted and medieval, looks old-school next to Spiral’s platinum designs, though the movie anchors itself firmly in the gritty procedural formula of the first, most respectable Saw (which itself draws from David Fincher’s Se7en). There’s also Rock doing his best satire of the cowboy cop, announcing the reboot’s higher pedigree by poking fun at the self-seriousness of the originals.

At the end of Spiral, Zeke obviously loses the game. The film’s only “good” cop, he is tested by the killer with an ultimatum: stop Spiral or join forces with him to violently flush out and rebuild the police department. Naturally, Zeke rejects the madman’s offer and righteous crusade, which results in the good cop becoming a victim of the institution he implicitly condones. Zeke doesn’t die, but he does bear witness to the death of his father (Samuel L. Jackson), the former chief of police, who’s hoisted into the air and made to look like he has a weapon, leading to his death by a SWAT firing squad—just as Spiral, who correctly predicts the cops’ thuggish behavior, intended.

I’m not sure what this messaging achieves considering Spiral’s true identity: It turns out that he’s a white rookie cop who infiltrated the police department to avenge his father, who was wrongfully slain by Zeke’s ex-partner. He is presented, up until that revelation, as the antithesis of the dirty cop. He is soft-spoken and good with children, and politely reminds Rock’s profanity-spewing character that “women don’t like to be called bitches.” In short, he’s an exemplar of “wokeness” who is ultimately revealed as the villain when he subjects Zeke’s father to the mindless brutality of his own colleagues—rendering Zeke into another Black child who watches his father die at the hands of the police.

The film pits amoral cops against a killer who goes to harrowing extremes to enact institutional change. The desire for social justice, under this guise, assumes tyrannical dimensions; the puzzlebox internal logic of Spiral becomes simply a ploy for ideological compliance. Perhaps this is why, more than all of the trashier Saw movies, Spiral’s climax feels unearned and plastic. Though it also builds toward a grisly conclusion in a dingy warehouse using frantic fast-cutting and a last-minute twist, there is a rote quality to the way it turns the tables on Zeke, delivering comeuppance through wobbly political talking points twisted into characters and motives that loosely conform to Saw’s conventions. In the end, one feels apathetic and mildly amused—and maybe confused as to which side we’re supposed to root for.

Rather than reinvent the Saw movies by instilling in them a clear sociopolitical agenda, Spiral pushes the nihilism of its precursors into even more cynical and meaningless terrain. It calls attention to the vacuous heart of an entertainment landscape in which “social relevance” and “timeliness” are empty signifiers, and moral imperatives mere pretexts.

Beatrice Loayza is associate web editor at the Criterion Collection. She writes about film and culture for the New York Times, Reverse Shot, Cinema Scope, The Baffler and other publications.