Is the latest instalment of the 00s goreno franchise actually great? Tim Coleman makes the case…
When Spiral: From the Book of Saw was released earlier this year – ostensibly the 9th entry in the infamous “torture porn” saga – it was greeted with mixed reactions. Whilst some praised it as “the most political horror film since Get Out”, such voices were few and far between, the general critical temperature being one of tired indifference.
As a rule the Saw films haven’t garnered the glowing reactions reserved for more “elevated” horror films. Where Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook traded in rich metaphors of grief and mental ill-health, and Ari Aster’s Midsommar was the world’s most traumatic breakup movie, the original Saw is a grimy little film made by the then up-and-coming James Wan and Leigh Whannell: the two have since gone on to helm such super-hits as The Conjuring and The Invisible Man respectively, but back in 2004 there was a whiff of exploitative snuff to their tale of a serial killer who placed his victims in gruesome traps to trigger their survival instincts and thus their appreciation for life.
Even if the series did eventually descend into a labyrinth of convoluted plot twists (films 1-8 can almost be watched back-to-back as one sprawling story) there was always an interesting moral dimension: what if the Jigsaw Killer – a.k.a John Kramer (Tobin Bell) – wasn’t really a killer at all, but some kind of post-modern, secular saviour? Like Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, Kramer was sickened by the stultifying inertia of thankless modern life, and his barbaric wake-up calls were – at least initially – always meant to lead to a kind of redemption. As Amanda (Shawnee Smith) says after surviving the original film’s iconic Reverse Bear Trap, “he helped me”.
All this is to say that, regardless of its reputation as degenerate, splatter-happy pornography, Saw had something to say. And it’s this legacy which Spiral returns to and reinvents. Taking place in a world where Kramer existed but bearing few other connections, it follows jaded cop Zeke (Chris Rock) as he begins to suspect that a Jigsaw copycat is taking out cops in his precinct. Already ostracised after he snitched on a corrupt colleague years ago, Zeke is buddied up with new Detective William (Max Minghella) and they – with some advice from Zeke’s father, and former captain, Marcus (Samuel L Jackson) – try to uncover who is behind it all. In true Saw style there’s a twist in the tale, as the final reel reveals the killer is in fact William, himself the son of a man murdered by Zeke’s former partner, a crime subsequently covered up by Marcus. The climatic sequence sees Zeke forced to choose between saving his father or joining forces with William to purge the police of corruption, but when Zeke chooses his dad the final trap unfurls where Marcus is hoisted up – puppet like – with a gun attached to his arm, prompting an invading SWAT team to take him out.
Many have derided Spiral as a sub-par mess, citing Rock’s allegedly patchy performance and a TV-movie aesthetic as particular issues. But thematically there’s more at play here, slotting the film into a tradition of horror movies – such as Maniac Cop – that deal with police brutality.
The timing of Spiral’s release in this was sadly prophetic. Although the violence of law enforcement against unarmed citizens has a tragically long history, the film was released just weeks before the murder of George Floyd by Officer Derek Chauvin, an event captured on smart-phone footage and shared online and that helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement, sparking protests across the United States and internationally. The fact that a similar event is revealed as the catalyst for Spiral – William’s father was illegally killed by Zeke’s partner – is of course coincidence, but nevertheless lends currency to the central conceit at Spiral’s outraged heart.
For just as John Kramer was on a moral crusade to get people to be grateful for their lives, William’s – quite understandable – motivation is that corrupt cops must be held to account. Justice is not a matter of state sanctioned authority in the form of a badge and gun, but a moral absolute demanded of all individuals, regardless of rank. This sense that those in power must be confronted for their gross abuses is what drew BLM protestors to the streets in their thousands, and though few would advocate William’s brand of vigilantism the simmering indignation is something that many can no doubt empathise with.
The counter-point – espoused by Marcus as justification for the fascistic excesses he presided over – is also a rhetoric we’re familiar with from real world discourse: the need for force to get the job done, law and order, ends justifying the means. It’s the language of the Right, and though the Saw franchise – as with most body-count movies, which routinely punish moral failings with death and dismemberment – is generally right-leaning in its social politics, here it’s the militaristic strong-arming of the Right which is itself being punished.
The question of race is, perhaps, one note of tension. Real world experiences show that BME groups are disproportionately more likely to be on the receiving end of police violence than their white peers, but in Spiral both Zeke and Marcus are black, something which appears to problematise the above reading… until the end. When Marcus is puppeteered into position before the SWAT team, they don’t see him as one of their own – a police officer accustomed to using force – but a black man, armed, in silhouette and therefore robbed of individuality and identity. He is not a man, but an archetype of black dangerousness. Zeke rushes forward, perhaps to try and reason, mediate, explain, but he’s forced to his knees with his hands behind his head, another black man disempowered by the authoritarian system. And it is from this position of powerlessness that he watches his father die.
The final shots – aside from the series’ trademark rapid-cut montage – is of Zeke turning to William in horror. And as the door slowly shuts, William raises his finger to his lips – “ssh” – mimicking Zeke’s response years earlier when he tried to silence the young William following his own father’s murder. It’s a chilling image, and one which trades in the kind of poetic cyclicism the Saw films are so given too, grinding Spiral’s thematic meat into a gruey soup before us: power, corruption, blackness and the police blended into a nexus of violent social satire. It’s also a fourth-wall breaking call to action, confronting us the audience with our own inaction in the face of injustice: will we close ranks, stay silent and protect the status quo, or demand justice from those in power?
Live or die, make your choice.
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