There are two types of films that can make you feel insane. Firstly, you have your beautifully directed art pieces. These are your movies like “Into The Void” or “Spring Breakers”; well-made films that intentionally drive the viewer mad as a choice. Secondly, you’ll find movies like “Spiral,” in which audience madness is a horrible side effect of bad filmmaking.
The “Saw” franchise is no stranger to both varieties of crazy. The first “Saw” film undeniably has the intended effect of driving the viewer insane with its pure nihilistic cruelty. While it may not have been a complete critical hit, it stands as the highest-rated film in the franchise on Rotten Tomatoes with a 50%. This is due to the problem that of the nine (yes, nine) “Saw” movies, only the first one manages to truly capture the horrors of the villain’s games.
Meanwhile, “Spiral” seems less occupied with captivating its audience than it is with trying to seem clever. The film centers around police Detective Zeke Banks, played by the talented Chris Rock. When a new Jigsaw killer emerges targeting corrupt cops, he and his partner (Max Minghella) must track them down before their precinct is emptied. Both Zeke and the audience spend most of the movie trying to figure out who will eventually backstab him. The theme of sin and punishment carries itself over from the previous “Saw” movies. However, the killer in “Spiral” makes it very clear he considers these police murders as acts of revenge rather than a way to spur redemption.
This leads to bland portrayals of the killings. Of course, the graphic deaths typical of the franchise are the reason for buying your ticket. While they’re appropriately gory, with some of the best ideas to date, the tension we’ve come to expect of “Saw” films is completely cut. The victims have a choice between an appropriately ironic atonement for their sins, such as a loss of appendages, or their death. This game has been the gimmick of every Jigsaw and Jigsaw-adjacent killer to date. Unfortunately, the choices in “Spiral” come across false. Convenient plot devices and vague timers remove many of the victims’ options. This has the effect of ruining the “game” for both the audience and the characters.
Rock’s performance is a band-aid on a cracking dam. His Tarantino rip-off monologue at the beginning of the film is out of place within the movie as a whole but ties some likeability on the character that doesn’t come undone. At about the thirty-minute mark, the script starts to fail the story and his character. Yet Rock’s acting stays worthy of attention, even when delivering the most expositional dialogue.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t perform on the level of Chris Rock. Even the always decent Samuel L. Jackson, playing the protagonist’s father, gives a performance that never becomes anything more than Jackson being Jackson. Many scenes in the movie are awkwardly cut together in no particular order; some plotlines set up early in the movie serve no purpose and are never revisited.
The film’s look and camera tricks owe a lot to the other “Saw” films. In the less intense moments, the filmmakers abandon these tricks and scenes become stale. It is easy to recognize good cinematography by how much it can convey even in the simplest of exchanges. Unfortunately, much of the camera work in the dialogue scenes approaches television levels of repetition. Prepare yourself to watch a lot of cutting between medium shots of characters yelling at one another.
At one point in the film, the Jigsaw copycat monologues that the spiral is a symbol of renewal. Nothing could be further from the truth for this movie or this horror series. Instead, the symbol appears as an apt allegory for a franchise circling the drain.