"Spider crawling/I crawl with him/We go everywhere/We see everything…"—"Spider," Oingo Boingo
When the train arrives, masses of people race past. But Dennis "Spider" Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) stands alone, haunted, disconnected. Bricked-up blue windows reflect the secrets behind his blank eyes, as he walks to Mrs. Wilkinson's (Lynn Redgrave) halfway house. And this is indeed a halfway house—halfway between here and memory, between desire and the bitter cold of a London populated by skeletal buildings and a few lost souls.
Spider notices little of this. He is caught in his own world. Standing in a pub one minute; remembering himself in a field with fellow madmen the next. In his meticulous cuneiform journal, he recounts a childhood whose terrors unfold like a movie he has seen too often. He remembers how his brutal father (Gabriel Byrne) might have murdered his mother (Miranda Richardson), how he might have brought home a local tart (Miranda Richardson) to take mother's place, how the young Spider wove a web to trap them all…
Sometimes David Cronenberg has the worst timing in the world. The same year he made his gender-bending look at the conflict between politics and desire M. Butterfly, the more pedestrian The Crying Game stole his thunder. When he decided to explore virtual reality in the playful eXistenZ, The Matrix crashed his hopes of a hit (and later crashed and burned itself when its bloated sequels proved not as smart as Cronenberg's low-budget thriller). And Spider, Cronenberg's thoughtful examination of the inner life of a schizophrenic, was unjustly overshadowed by the glossy Hollywood prestige picture, A Beautiful Mind. Still, Cronenberg keeps plugging away, releasing of the most consistently inventive and complex bodies of cinematic work of any living director. Few directors have spawned such critical interest (hell, I devoted an entire chapter to his films in my own book on ethics and science fiction) in his themes of disease, desire, and the perilous tension between body and mind. And every new Cronenberg film promises to deepen his reputation.
Spider came as somewhat of a surprise to fans of David Cronenberg's forays into "body horror." This interior, psychological drama crafted from the novel by Patrick McGrath may be Cronenberg's most "normal" picture since M. Butterfly. Do not let Spider deceive you however. It is hardly a departure for the obsessive Canadian director. From the opening credits, where inkblot stains drift into view, we know Spider is about the landscape of the mind, about the virtual world of memory. In this sense, the film explores a prevalent theme in Cronenberg's work: how desire shapes self-identity. And just as we were unsure of our footing in Videodrome or Naked Lunch or eXistenZ, uncertain where memory and fantasy left off and reality began, so we are similarly disoriented in Spider.
It is difficult to explain exactly what goes on in this film. We are immersed in the mind of a schizophrenic, so deeply that McGrath's script even refuses to use that clinical word in order to keep us from having an escape route. In a nutshell, McGrath and Cronenberg have invited us to watch the unfolding memories of a madman. So much of the success of this film then depends on the lead role. Ralph Fiennes has to carry every scene, as the adult Spider often watches his own childhood as if he is standing on the same stage with a troupe of performers. Fiennes gives a powerful performance: his Spider is a soul turned inward, always nervously examining every detail for clues which might reveal a secret. Unlike, say, Dustin Hoffman's performance in Rain Man, Fiennes' portrait of a schizophrenic feels less calculated, focusing on small gestures, silences, and even going whole scenes without coherent dialogue. We grapple vainly, often in frustration, to empathize with Spider, and it is to Fiennes' credit that he manages to elicit our sympathy without ever betraying the character's maddening interiority.
Indeed, Spider's main drawback is that our immersion into Spider Cleg's world is a little chilly, a problem common in many of Cronenberg's movies. Spider's world is all shadows and sadness, and audiences not prepared to accept the film's almost oppressively funereal tone may feel the need to pop some Xanax afterwards. But none of this discredits the excellent work of either Fiennes or Cronenberg here. Cronenberg's consistently delicate directorial touch shows a confidence and maturity that directors who usually make turgid shockers about "crazy people" should be forced at gunpoint to study. And Fiennes gently nuanced performance as Spider is the best of his career.
Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson must also strike a delicate balance as Spider's parents. Although Miranda Richardson overtly plays multiple roles in the film (suggesting the confused feelings Spider has about his mother), Byrne's portrayal of Bill Cleg requires even more subtlety. Is Bill's anger the product of an innate cruelty, the classic Oedipal "bad father?" Without giving away too many plot twists in the film, we also might see Bill merely as an ordinary man frustrated by his inability to grapple with his son's descent into madness. Only on the second viewing, then the third, and so on, does David Cronenberg's blurred vision become—well, not so much clearer as more dizzying. Like a spider's web, the film offers multiple paths in a crooked spiral around a tragic center.
David Cronenberg is one of those crucial contemporary directors whose work is only now starting to get justice on DVD. Sony's DVD release of Spider features a modest array of extras to accompany the moody film. For "In the Beginning," Cronenberg, cast, and crew talk about their initial entries into the project, which became more of a labor of love when everyone had to defer their salaries after the original financing fell through. Why does one of the most important living directors still have trouble getting his pictures financed, when so many Hollywood hacks can command the budget of a small nation?
In "Weaving the Web," Cronenberg dissects several scenes, explaining his expressionistic approach to the film. In "Caught in the Web," the cast discuss the craftsmanship behind their key performances. But the centerpiece here is a cogent, if sedate, commentary track from the director. Cronenberg is clearly a thoughtful director, well able to analyze his own work without sounding pompous. He understands that the film is more of a "philosophical study" of insanity, exploring his usual themes of virtuality (what he calls here "infected memory," playing off his usual penchant for disease) and the psychological forces that shape our self-identity. He praises McGrath's screenplay, but admits that "to be faithful to a novel, you must betray it, in cinematic terms" (although this is more true of Naked Lunch and Crash than here).
Spider is perhaps the most mournful of Cronenberg's films, slowly unraveling with an elegiac tone that may demand more attention from viewers who are looking for overt shock and suspense. This is a case study in psychosis, not a lurid spectacle, and Cronenberg knows that to payoff our sympathy for Spider with some climactic and garish act of movie "madness." There are no easy answers in the film, and as Cronenberg even suggests, our interpretation of events even after the picture is over may be just another one of Spider's delusions. We may have to walk with him again, and again, and again, before we even begin to understand him.
Spider is returned to the asylum for further treatment. David Cronenberg is prescribed more filmmaking therapy and instructed to continue venting his personal demons on screen. Trust me, I'm a doctor.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by David Cronenberg
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