review by Nicholas Schager, 28 February 2003

Imprecise Line

David Cronenberg’s fascination with the imprecise line between fantasy and reality takes mature form with Spider, a mesmerizing adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s novel that stands as the director’s most accomplished work to date. A riveting examination of the human mind’s capacity for denial (and the dire ramifications of such coping mechanisms), the film marks an apparent turning point for the director, reimagining his trademark fixations – generally slimy creatures either penetrating or escaping from their human body hosts – without the usual gory science fiction or horror trappings. Here, Cronenberg’s penetration obsession comes via Dennis “Spider” Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), a mentally ill gentleman whose scarred psyche becomes fertile soil for both a murder mystery and an investigation into the delusional machinations of the schizophrenic mind.

Cleg, nicknamed Spider because of his adolescent attraction to Mom’s tales of spider webs (and also, perhaps, because of his fractured state of mind), has just been released from a mental hospital into the care of a halfway house located in the London neighborhood where he grew up. The film opens with a long tracking shot past passengers departing a train, finally settling on the disheveled and tentative Spider, whose cautious steps onto the station platform immediately reveal him to be a disturbed individual. Mumbling indecipherable gibberish under his breath, Spider shuffles his way through London’s surreally drab, empty streets – the “normal” people we’ve seen departing the train are the last this film will concern itself with – and into the grim halfway household of Mrs. Wilkenson (Lynn Redgrave).

After a brief encounter with a fellow inmate named Terrence (John Neville) – whose question to Spider about whether he’s ever been to Africa (the “dark continent”), is loaded with metaphorical significance – Spider retires to his dingy room, hiding his suitcase full of assorted trinkets under his bed and his precious notepad under the dusty floor rug. Since there’s little supervision of the house’s residents, Spider begins to wander the streets of his old neighborhood, and his return to assorted childhood haunts bring back visions of his nightmarish 1960’s youth spent in the care of his loving, attentive housewife mom (Miranda Richardson) and drunken, abusive plumber dad (Gabriel Byrne). The adult Spider cowers in the background as his memories play out in front of his eyes, and the film effortlessly crosscuts between these flashbacks and the present, which usually involves Spider furiously recording his thoughts in his notepad while locked away in his bedroom. Like the desolate London streets outside his window, this room – which will soon be overrun by intertwining string, organized in a web-like pattern, along its ceiling – becomes a visual representation of Spider’s lonely, anguished mental condition. Returning home has sent him spiraling down a cancerous memory lane, ensnaring him in a sticky web of childhood horrors too terrible to honestly confront and too devastating to overcome.

Spider’s childhood was a fairly volatile one, with Dad spending most of his nights at the local pub and Mom working tirelessly to maintain a proper house and care for her growing child without incurring the wrath of her oft-belligerent husband. Dear old Dad frequently visited a randy blond tart – a woman with decaying teeth and a penchant for obnoxious braying (also played by Richardson) who looked strikingly similar to Spider’s mother – and the two eventually knocked off Spider’s mom and set up house together. When Spider went to wake his parents the morning after his mother’s murder, he was shocked to discover his beloved mum replaced by a garish tramp who, in the days and weeks that followed, treated the boy with nothing but indifferent contempt.

But as the adult Spider’s recollections of these seminal events become more and more bizarre – how, for example, can Spider remember events that he was not a witness to? –  the veracity of his, and consequently the film’s, narrative is called into question. What we can glean from his untrustworthy remembrances, however, is the possible origin of his madness: the seemingly innocent but nonetheless traumatic discovery of his mother trying on a fashionable negligee. Her inappropriate question to Spider –  “You think Dad will like it?” – awakens his latent Oedipal desires, and heralds the psychological death knell for the fragile young boy.

Like Cronenberg’s trippy cinematic reworking of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Spider is a purely subjective experience that abandons conventional logic for the delirious psychosis of its increasingly deranged protagonist. The director uses a variety of skewed angles, long shots, ominously rhythmic editing, and cramped framing (including a gorgeously melancholy shot of Spider and Terrence eating breakfast through a doorway) to give the film its air of clinical detachment. These distancing techniques not only allow us to observe Spider as outsiders (despite being “inside” his mind), but also augment the sense of alienated desperation that consumes Spider’s life. Cronenberg, working with Luc Besson’s long-time cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, has shot a film of bleak, stifling melancholy that pulsates with subliminal malevolence.

As the reclusive, tortured Spider, Ralph Fiennes admirably avoids the pitfalls inherent in embodying a mentally handicapped character (twitchy mannerisms, goofy voices, bursts of comic or uplifting lunacy) by using a downcast glare and shambling edginess to craft a haunting portrait of a man whose life has been torn apart from the inside out. But the prize catch of Spider’s web is Miranda Richardson, whose portrayal of Spider’s good and bad mothers (not to mention a third maternal figure) exhibits the kind of awe-inspiring range – freely alternating between nurturing affection and coiled rage – that greatness is made of. Spider may be unsure of whether his mother was a saint or a whore, but there’s no denying that Richardson’s magnificent triple-threat performance is the stuff memories are made of.


Directed by:
David Cronenberg

Ralph Fiennes
Miranda Richardson
Gabriel Byrne
Bradley Hall
Lynn Redgrave
John Neville
Gary Reineke
Philip Craig

Written by:
Patrick McGrath 
David Cronenberg

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult







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