Sitting comfortably between an episode of Black Mirror and a fun genre exercise akin to Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi or Unsane, Joseph Kosinski’s Spiderhead is a surprisingly thrilling experience built upon an intriguing premise and tightly wound screenplay. A simple conceit that plays with the role of consent, Kosinski’s latest interrogates human flaws without sacrificing a propulsive narrative. Aided by a charismatic, conniving performance from Chris Hemsworth and an ‘80s soundtrack composed primarily of yacht rock, Spiderhead is a breezy, heady rumination on grief and pain.
There’s an inherent summer movie vibe to Spiderhead that instantly comes into view as Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth) cruises into a state-of-the-art prison on his speedboat while blasting yacht rock and the sun reflects off his sunglasses. Even once inside, it’s clear that the prison Steve is running is not your run-of-the-mill penitentiary. The inmates are free to roam the premises, they’re given delicious-looking food, and have plenty of time to converse with one another and relax. The price they pay? They’ve each agreed to participate in an experimental drug trial headed by Steve.
Nearing the end of the drug trial, Jeff (Miles Teller) begins questioning the validity and purpose of the work they’ve done when the tests become much more direct and manipulative. This is essentially where Spiderhead picks up and runs with its plot – each small eccentricity and seemingly innocuous detail providing the film with quirk while still retaining significance in its implementation. Small moments like Steve’s insistence on getting Jeff to stop calling him Mr. Abnesti illustrate a character hellbent on being liked, but it also weaves into the narrative in a way that is somewhat ingenious.
That’s the big selling point of Spiderhead as the prisoner-warden relationship strains under Jeff’s curiosity and Steve’s ultimate objective with the trial. It’s never as pointless as it seems, even with some of its sillier or more predictable subplots, but it also depends on the audience to be hooked on its premise. It helps that Kosinski and crew know they have a fun idea in their hands even if it broaches darker themes and can suddenly veer into absurdity. It’s an exercise in treating everything with significance even if it doesn’t seem important at the time. Everything leads to trauma in one way or another, but it doesn’t have to start that way.
There’s also a lot to be said about Hemsworth’s performance in Spiderhead and how well it plays to the strengths of the film. A prison warden administers drug tests to criminals that range from making them feel unwavering love towards everything around them to witnessing and succumbing to their greatest fears, he’s a researcher playing God with those locked away from society. It’s a character that veers from friendly to demanding while hiding the manipulation beneath his exterior. It’s a role that requires finesse to pull off and Hemsworth gleefully rides that line.
While other actors get to show a wide range of performances due to the drugs their characters are administered, Hemsworth is the guiding hand and his performance ultimately dictates the tone of the entire film. Teller and Jurnee Smollett – who plays Rachel, another inmate recently moved into the program and Jeff’s love interest – each get their turn at baring it all emotionally, but their performances are anchors to Hemsworth’s boat. Without them, it goes off-the-rails too soon, but if played too straight Hemsworth’s performance would feel out of place. It’s also one of Hemsworth’s best performances, giving him a role that he doesn’t typically get to sink his teeth into.
The only real disappointment of Spiderhead is that it never really reaches beyond its very literal premise. It’s got twists that are fun to witness, but whenever it veers into adding emotional stakes to Jeff’s inquisitiveness, it never really feels potent. The machinations that push everything towards the climax are all very straightforward and it isn’t until then that Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s screenplay pays off the weirder eccentricities in the film. The attempts to make Jeff’s character emotionally resonant and expand upon his past only serve to stall an otherwise compelling, twisty narrative.
That being said, there’s very little that gets in the way of the film once it starts picking up steam and all of the fun elements begin taking on further importance. Spiderhead shocks not because of its twists and turns, but because it handles tonal shifts effortlessly. Immediately intriguing, Kosinski knows when to take something funny and make it uncomfortable, which builds a sturdy foundation upon which the film can play around with tone freely and not feel jarring.
In short, Spiderhead is a blast. It always has something on its mind but always keeps its head low, focusing on providing thrills that benefit the narrative and experience as opposed to giving into philosophical musings on free will and consent. That it happens to handle those relatively well is a bonus, even if it never leads to the film transcending its very meat-and-potatoes structure.