When Social-Justice Horror Goes Wrong

In the new Saw movie, Chris Rock pivots from comedy to torture porn disguised as political commentary.

Chris Rock and Max Minghella as police officers in 'Saw'
Brooke Palmer / Lionsgate

This story contains spoilers for the film Spiral: From the Book of Saw.

Saw, that undying paean to torture porn, finally started running out of stamina when its eighth—eighth!—entry hit theaters in 2017. The once-popular Lionsgate series had gotten predictable; the death traps were rusty, the box-office returns waning. Even B-listers hadn’t joined the cast in years. It needed a new star and a new purpose.

As it turned out, the studio could kill two birds with one Chris Rock. Joe Drake, a Lionsgate executive, says he bumped into Rock at a wedding, where the comedian lobbied “in chilling detail” for a reimagined take on the franchise. Rock would star as a detective chasing a serial killer known as “Spiral,” who targets only corrupt cops. Whereas the original villain, Jigsaw, hunted an array of prey, this copycat would focus on weeding out the “bad apples” of law enforcement. “We were all in,” Drake gushed in 2019. “Chris conceived this idea, and it will be completely reverential to the legacy of the material while reinvigorating the brand with his wit, creative vision, and passion.”

It’s easy to see why Drake would think so. As the recent era of “elevated horror” films proves, the genre can offer much more than cheap scares. Even the Saw movies have tackled weighty subjects: Saw VI used its grisly games to make a point about the greed of the American health-care system. Despite being made before last year’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against police brutality, Spiral speaks to the ongoing push to hold law enforcement responsible for alleged abuses. Its hero is keenly aware of the unpunished crimes committed by his own precinct. “It seems very timely,” Rock said in an interview about Spiral. “To say ‘luck’ would be a weird thing. But sometimes the stars just align.”

If only that were the case. Even with Rock’s star power and influence as an executive producer, Spiral: From the Book of Saw is a mess, like a pile of dismembered ideas wearing the skin of social justice. The movie never figures out whether to approach the topic of police reform seriously or satirically. Rather than using the genre to illuminate uncomfortable truths about policing, Spiral only gestures at “wokeness” for the sake of relevance.

The problem begins with the film’s failure to land on a clear perspective about its hero. Spiral follows Zeke (played by Rock), an officer trying to live up to the legacy of his father, a former police chief named Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson), while dealing with a precinct that hates him because he turned in his old partner for being a dirty cop. The script characterizes Zeke as somehow both jaded and idealistic, alternating between humorless scenes and ones that play like stand-up sets; at times, Rock looks befuddled to find himself plopped into the middle of the Saw universe. It doesn’t help that his idea of dramatic acting seems to be squinting as hard as possible, or that, when sharing the screen with Jackson, Rock is all seriousness while Jackson plays his part with knowing amusement, as if he’d just spotted some snakes on a plane.

It’s too bad, because Rock has said that he wanted to play a cop, calling it a “rite of passage” for Black comedians. This role offered him a chance to play the complicated protagonist rather than the wisecracking sidekick. Rock has also been excellent at skewering the difficulty of holding the police accountable in his stand-up. I expected him to contribute some scathing witticisms about life as a Black cop to the script; instead, Zeke’s punch lines are about topics such as political correctness and Forrest Gump. The best version of Spiral could’ve raised challenging, character-driven questions about morality: Does Zeke, someone who believes in reform, think on some level that Spiral’s violence is justified? As a Black officer, does he feel mistrusted as the lead investigator on the case? Is he wrong to try to save the criminal colleagues whom Spiral targets?

The Spiral that made it to theaters doesn’t probe any of that. It’s a passion project gone awry—too serious in its creative intentions to be ignored, yet too silly to take seriously. Nuance gets traded for something the Saw movies have never lacked: gore. What viewers will take away from Spiral are not reflections on how police corruption perpetuates itself, but graphic sequences of a tongue being ripped out and a woman’s face being melted off and a man being skinned alive.

At the risk of praising a fictional serial killer, Jigsaw at least made for an unusual and well-defined villain; his aim wasn’t to kill but to inspire a renewed appreciation for life—a characterization buoyed by Tobin Bell’s spine-tingling performance. Spiral, however, deliberately maims and slaughters his victims. That Spiral turns out to be the son of a victim of police brutality isn’t just predictable—it’s also facile and damaging in its suggestion that such trauma easily leads to murderous sociopathy. Spiral’s nonsensical climax—a heavy-handed comment on racial bias in shooting incidents—underscores the incoherence of the film’s message. Indeed, it suggests that Spiral’s crusade was personal all along, rather than about changing an institution.

Since the release of Get Out, horror has seen a wave of new stories in which systemic racism is the real monster. But as my colleague Hannah Giorgis wrote of such projects, “Racial horror is most effective when the central characters feel rich and fleshed out, when audiences are invested in them not just out of implied moral obligation.” Spiral fails on both fronts: Zeke is more of a thought exercise than a protagonist, and by portraying law enforcement as both perpetrator and victim, Spiral seems unsure whether the dirty cops targeted are reprehensible or sympathetic. If the film is trying to suggest that there’s no solution, then it has reduced an urgent discussion about policing—a debate over whether to reform, demilitarize, defund, or abolish the institution entirely—into a shrug. In trying to save itself, the Saw series got caught in a convoluted trap of its own making.