Joseph Kosinski goes full-on gonzo sci-fi in Spiderhead, and the results are just as thrilling as in his previous films.
Last month, Top Gun: Maverick finally gave director Joseph Kosinski the recognition he deserved since making TRON: Legacy back in 2010. The architecture professor-turned-director made three masterpieces before crafting one of the greatest legacy sequels that ever graced the screen, and they went unnoticed by critics and audiences alike. Only the Brave is one that needs to be seen by the masses because the drama he crafts in that movie imbues the tension found in Top Gun: Maverick. And here he is again with Spiderhead, another film that will go unnoticed, but one that everyone should see, especially if you’re a fan of having an established filmmaker veer off in territories they didn’t explore before and flex their creative muscles.
Based on the short story “Escape From Spiderhead” by George Saunders, the movie’s cerebral plot involves inmates in a research facility/prison experimenting with different drugs to “change the world.” It’s all extremely nebulous, but our protagonist, Jeff (Miles Teller), goes along with it, as he feels it’s a better alternative than a regular jail cell, and forms a relationship with the facility’s program director, Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), overseeing the experiments at Spiderhead.
Jeff participates in a new trial of a drug named N-40, which makes him have profound feelings with inmates he otherwise wouldn’t have, ultimately leading them into having [very intense] sex. The next day, Steve asks Jeff to administer Darkenfloxx, a drug inducing strong pain to anyone receiving it, to one of the inmates he had sex with. He refuses, and Steve progressively starts to show his true colors.
On paper, Spiderhead shouldn’t work. Weird drug names, half-baked motivations as to why Jeff (and the other inmates) are participating in drug trials, or the purpose of why Steve is inducing his inmates to strong drugs (or Darkenfloxx), and an aesthetic teetering on the edge of serious psychological drama to gonzo science-fiction. But once the movie gets to its opening credits scene, with sweeping aerial shots from Claudio Miranda as Steve flies a hydroplane to Spiderhead while Supertramp’s “The Logical Song” plays in the background, it’s clear that the movie will be unlike anything Kosinski has ever done and that you just have to sit back and enjoy the ride. And what a ride this movie is, as flummoxing as it will be.
Kosinski pulls no punches in setting up the film’s initial framing device, showing us what Jeff sees as he’s high on a barrage of drugs, and progressively intensifying the drama as the Darkenfloxx experiment goes sideways. He carefully establishes a bond between Jeff and Steve before bringing them at odds with one another. Spiderhead doesn’t look like a prison, and there’s certainly no animosity between the jailer and the jailed, and since Steve gives free and controlled drugs to his inmates, it feels like paradise. In those earlier scenes, Hemsworth and Teller beautifully present their friendship as completely natural. They’re two human beings talking to one another, without any power relations between the two. Heck, they even get high together at some point and share traumatic moments from their past without shame.
And so it becomes disheartening for Jeff to disobey Steve when he’s confronted with Darkenfloxxing two women he never thought of loving until he was influenced by the effects of N-40, and you feel it on Teller’s facial expressions, which are second to none. Kosinski has built one heck of a relationship with Teller, and his three career-best roles have been in Only the Brave, Top Gun: Maverick, and now Spiderhead. The character screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick wrote for Teller is rich, and layered with so much pain underneath his “empty” façade, that the actor immediately shines in the role once he starts to unravel the “bigger picture” in front of his very eyes. Scenes with Jurnee Smollett’s Lizzy provide an impeccable amount of emotional depth to the character, that once he is thwarted with difficult choices, it’s hard not to care for him, and anyone whose life is in danger by the effects of Darkenfloxx.
Hemsworth is also excellent as Steve and is now two for two in playing straight-up psychopaths who do a little dance at some point during the film (his last iconic performance was in Bad Times at the El Royale, where his unpredictable nature as Cult Leader Billy Lee led him to dance to Deep Purple’s Hush). Jokes aside, we never know what lurks behind his charming smile, and impeccable dance skills. He’s convincing enough to make Jeff do anything he wants, constantly manipulating him even if his demeanor seems “friendly.” He uses that tactic brilliantly, and the way he talks to anyone he meets is particularly chilling. The chemistry Hemsworth shares with Teller is electrifying, on par with Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke in Moon Knight—a calm, and rather friendly, antagonist versus a protagonist slowly losing his mind (though Jeff doesn’t have multiple identities…he’s experiencing strong residual effects from the drugs, which exacerbate the trauma he keeps inside).
Kosinski intricately builds up the tension between the two characters before he unleashes one heck of a third act, that’s equal parts laugh-out-loud funny, impeccably cathartic, and contains multiple needle drops that enhance every ounce of Claudio Miranda’s luscious cinematography, all tightly edited by Stephen Mirrione. I truly do not want to give anything away, because it not only contains some of Chris Hemsworth’s greatest-ever work, but it is so insane that describing it in words would not do it justice. Kosinski’s third acts have always been his strongest elements of any film he makes, and Spiderhead’s is no exception.
The movie does take a while to get going, but everything starts to make sense once the climax hits and all bets go off. He’s unafraid of shocking the audience with multiple twists and turns and surprising them through impeccably shot and choreographed one-vs-one fight sequences, where the humor goes up a notch and every possible thing imaginable is used as a weapon. Had it been directed by someone else, it shouldn’t have worked, and likely would be justifiably vilified, but Kosinski’s eye for pure catharsis continues to dazzle, and he always gets the best out of his actors no matter what.
I honestly do not get why Spiderhead was met with mixed criticism when it was released on Netflix, because I loved every single minute of it. Yes, it takes time before things get more than sideways, but the intricate drama and relationships between the characters are enticing enough and hold our attention before the third act comes in and the movie unleashes its gonzo sci-fi premise to the fullest extent. Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller are absolutely brilliant, through flawlessly executed dramatic swings that make us care about every character inhabiting Spiderhead, the craziest test facility you’ll see in a movie all year.
I’m waiting for Joseph Kosinski to make a bad movie, or to disappoint me. I thought it would be the day with Spiderhead after reading some of its reviews, but I couldn’t help but love Hemsworth’s dedication, Claudio Miranda’s staggering photography, and the film’s energetic needle drop which enhanced every performance and scene. Like Top Gun: Maverick, Spiderhead resurrects a type of filmmaking we don’t see anymore, and simultaneously flexes Kosinski’s directorial skills to more exciting heights, solidifying him as the best contemporary genre filmmaker working today. No one makes a movie quite like Joseph Kosinski, and no one ever will. Now please give us TRON 3, already!
Spiderhead is now available to watch on Netflix.