Spiderhead: A Prisoner of Deed

Based on a 2010 short story by George Saunders, spider head, is a dark and twisted psychological thriller about the struggles it can take to escape the pain of the mistakes we’ve made in the past and the prison walls we build with our own guilt. The setting is a pharmaceutical testing center that offers inmates an alternative to prison. Inmates are equipped with a small device fitted to the lower back which administers various medications housed in the units. In controlled experiments, the level and duration of the injection are controlled via a smartphone by Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) and his assistant, Mark (Mark Paguio). Prisoner Jeff (Miles Teller) begins to have feelings for his fellow prisoner Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), neither of them are hardened criminals but have made a single horrific mistake in their life which led to their incarceration . Drugs tested on prisoners control emotion and can even go so far as to temporarily create the feeling of love between people and there is a drug for the opposite, the most intense mental anguish, the feeling of one’s worst day multiplied by ten. The love Jeff feels for Lizzy is natural and not drug-induced, which becomes very important to Abnesti. After an inmate dies in one of the experiments, Jeff begins to understand what is really going on at Spiderhead.

The basic premise remains intact from the source material, but the film diverges to flesh out the characters and add additional twists to the plot. The film’s script is smart and interesting, but for the most part it’s not an action movie and more of a psychological drama centered around the characters and what they experience. The pacing was a bit slow, but the story flowed well and I was still captivated by the characters and dialogue. The cast was great with Miles Teller giving a nuanced performance as a man defeated by his past and the emotional scars that come with a terrible decision. He’s reserved for most of the movie, but you can sense the angst on his part and you can tell he’s a good person. There are two sides to Abnesti, a genius inventor and more importantly, a shrewd salesman. I didn’t really believe Chris Hemsworth was a genius scientist, but I did believe he was a very confident manipulator who did a lot in his life thanks to his good looks and charismatic charm. The type of guy you instantly believe no matter what they tell you and are led to follow. He even mentions that beautiful people get off much better, a fact he has taken advantage of more than once. Chris played this role of Abnesti until the end. Mark Paguio was good as a morally conflicted assistant who really wanted to help people.

The film’s didactic themes are dark and at times subtle, centering on grief, guilt, and despair in society. The film raises the moral question that these dark emotions should be removed from the world, and if a love potion existed, would it really be love? History reveals that for many prisoners, the stone walls of an institution are not really the prison. The real prison cell is the walls that our mind puts around us. The terrible guilt that accompanies fateful decisions that hurt or kill those we love, and can anyone really be freed from the mental prison that we too condemn ourselves to.

Daniel K. Denny