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David Cronenberg is one of the most talented and provocative filmmakers out there. And after thirty years of playing with our societal taboos, he turns in a film that has nothing to do with the mutilation or modification of the body. But don't let that fool you into thinking he's slowed down. It is not the warping of the body that interests Cronenberg this time out, but the warping of the mind in a very common but no less disturbing manner.
Spider is the nickname that was given to Ralph Fiennes' character when he was a boy. His fascination with the artistic yet mechanical creatures, and his propensity to weave tiny webs out of string made it a term of affection given to him by his mother (Miranda Richardson - THE CRYING GAME, SLEEPY HOLLOW). When we first see the adult Spider, he is the last person to exit a train. He seems at odds with his surroundings. He looks strange and sloven in comparison with the perfect asymmetrical architecture around him. Everything he does seems to require far too much effort. He is dressed a bit sloppily, but not for lack of trying. He mutters to himself. He forsakes a wallet for a long sock. He tries very hard to keep his bearings as he tries to find his destination and one suspects it's one of the hardest things he will have to do all week. Clearly, Spider is a schizophrenic. He has just been released from the asylum and is now making his way to a sort of halfway house.
The nature of this house and the people who reside in it is encapsulated by Terrence (John Neville), a tenant who speaks very timidly, choosing his words carefully. He didn't expect to stay at the house very long. "But it is a loud world and this is an island," he says. "But it is an island ruled by a tyrant queen." He is speaking of Mrs. Wilkenson (Lynn Redgrave), the aged spinster who runs the place. While "tyrant queen" may be a bit harsh, she does seem to take some satisfaction over the power she holds on the mentally ill tenants.
Spider has a plan to retrace the steps that led to his madness. He leaves the house whenever possible and revisits the old haunts of his youth. There, he watches the events of the past unfold, always lingering in the background - a ghost, a bystander who can do nothing to stop the chain of events.
Spider's parents were never very rich. His father (Gabriel Byrne) was a plumber and his mother was a housewife. Looking back, we see how Spider idealized his mother above anything else. His father was a working stiff, trying to bring home the bacon on a plumber's salary. We gather that his father was the first to turn to drink, and Spider would often go to the local pub to take his father home. The pub was frequented by people of similar stature, but also featured several taunting drunken louts as well as the cruel local whores. Spider witnesses his father under the spell of one particular whore, and his family becomes embroiled in a horrible crime.
By day, he relives his past. He returns to the home at night and scrawls in his journal. Like many schizophrenics, the journal is a paradox - small, neat writing that is perfectly formed into tables and columns. The handwriting itself however is scribbled and would likely read as complete gibberish to anyone but Spider. As Spider travels back in his heart and mind to a more innocent time and the moment of his corruption, he seeks to unlock the mystery of his own madness. But things don't turn out the way he would have liked, and as the Chinese proverb says, "Be careful what you wish for."
Cronenberg's films always feel very confined and claustrophobic. This is true whether the film features minimal locations like this one, or whether they are far reaching like DEAD RINGERS or NAKED LUNCH. One reason the films feel smaller than they are is that Cronenberg seems unconcerned with venturing through the outside world. The journey he is interested in undertaking is a wholly internal one. Just as Spider is unable to change the events as he watches them unfold, we watch them through his eyes. He could not have been present at all the occurrences shown. Therefore, they become not flashbacks so much as his perception of the events. It soon becomes clear that Spider weaves webs not only for play, but in his mind as well.
The world quickly transitions to one of simplicity and innocence to something more complex and ugly. People struggle, argue and hurt one another. Sex is not seen as anything erotic, but mechanical and clumsy. Children are betrayed. People turn from saints into monsters without any grey lines between the black and the white.
While Fiennes' performance is excellent and perfectly captures someone in Spider's particular mental and emotional state, it may catch many viewers off guard. He mutters his words instead of saying them outright. He doesn't communicate with the audience or with anyone else directly through what he says. Fortunately, the film allows us to catch on to the plot easily by watching the natural progression of the plot. However, if you do want to understand what he's saying, don't be surprised if you need to use the Subtitles option on your DVD player.
Since it is integral to the plot, the less said about Miranda Richardson's performance the better. Suffice to say it's an expert job and her best work since THE CRYING GAME, my favorite movie of 1992. Gabriel Byrne gives one of those performances that reminds us how wasted he is taking up supporting parts in big studio crap like ENEMY OF THE STATE. Cronenberg is traditionally a director who really encourages his cast to apply their craft, rather than just fill a role as many filmmakers would have it.
Perhaps the best performance is Neville as Terrence, Spider's friend and a character that is unique to this film adaptation. He looks as though he is about to break down into tears at any second. It's a heart-wrenching performance and you suspect that behind every one of his words, there is some peek through the window of his soul. In one early scene, Mrs. Wilkenson remarks how strange it is that Spider has put on four shirts. Terrence sees this as a neccesity. "Clothes maketh the man," he says, "The less there is of the man, the more the need for the clothes."
Although it is an intriguing and fascinating film in many ways, SPIDER is far from Cronenberg's best work. We realize too late that the film has been way too short. Not enough insight is given for instance, about Spider's time in the sanitarium. The subject is so glossed over in fact, that one portion that was meant as a sanitarium scene I mistook for a scene with the house tenants. It was only after listening to Cronenberg's audio commentary that I was clued into the truth. And of course, we shouldn't require an explanation from him over something as simple as location.
SPIDER shows the master at work and creating a fine psychological and emotional profile. But it all somehow isn't enough. While the film is certainly passable and contains a great number of exquisite performances, the film itself falls just short of what's required to make this one of Cronenberg's best. Like Spider himself, a lot of effort went into the film. The results are mostly presentable, with just enough noticeable flaws to keep it from being accepted with the best of the mix.