Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, John Neville, Bradley Hall, Lynn Redgrave
MPAA Rating: (for sexuality, brief violence and language)
Running Time: 1:38
Release Date: 2/28/03
Review by Mark Dujsik
One insane man tells another a story. He once knew a man who liked gas so much that he put his head in the oven and turned it on. As he sat there, he changed his mind only to discover that his head was stuck. If you can figure out what's wrong with this story, you have a basic understanding behind the secret of Spider and its title character. Director David Cronenberg and screenwriter Patrick McGrath (adapting his novel, which is now high on my must-read list) effortlessly set up clues and foreshadow later revelations because they do not seem to be clues or foreshadowing. The reason for this is that Spider is the essence of its central character. He is a mystery, and so is the film. He is detached from the world; the film is detached from its world. He meanders and walks around the truth; the film takes its time to let him. He is confused; we are confused. As he discovers, we discover. He is the unwitting pawn of his own mind and we, the spectators. Insanity is a popular subject throughout art because, I think, it frightens us. The human mind is a complex machine, and there have to be the occasional kinks in the equipment. Spider lets us into such a mind. It isn't a film; it's a nightmare.
Spider Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) is coming home. He arrives on a train, occupied by regular people going about their lives, but the camera pans over to him. He wanders the street with a suitcase and an address, trying to find his new home. It's a halfway house run by Mrs. Ilkenson (Lynn Redgrave). He tries to make himself comfortable, searching out a suitable hiding place for his journal, starting a puzzle, and making conversation with Terrence (John Neville), a fellow occupant with many odd stories. Spider is near his childhood home here, and he spends his days going around to familiar places and writing down memories. He remembers his mother (Miranda Richardson), a good, kind woman in the eyes of young Spider (Bradley Hall), and his father (Gabriel Byrne), a tough man with a weakness for drink. He remembers their show of affection toward each other, until his father begins to sneak around with another woman. The affair becomes more and more serious, and his mother becomes suspicious. One night she tries to find him at his regular bar, and by the end of the night, someone will end up murdered.
Routine controls Spider's life. He is constantly writing in his journal in a nonsensical form that we never doubt makes perfect sense to him. He regularly stops for a cup of coffee and always sits in the same seat—just below the menu. He is able to assemble puzzles with ease. McGrath takes the time to establish Spider's habits and consequently manages to elicit tension by simply changing, interrupting, modifying his routine. Sometimes the variation is slight, like when he adds too much sugar to his coffee; other times it's not, like when he begins to become increasingly frustrated with the puzzle. As Spider recalls the events at the center of his current situation, the film employs a method of seamless flashbacks that have Spider observing his past from the outside. In this way, McGrath and Cronenberg structurally capture Spider's complete immersion in his own world. They also play with our assumptions. We expect that as the back story progresses, we will learn what one event triggered Spider's behavior, but it's a lot more complicated than that. There are a number of factors that have contributed to his personality.
We sense a certain level of oedipal tendencies in Spider's youth. As a child, he begins to fashion webs made of string because his mother talks to him about the creature (it's where the nickname comes from). The webs become a motif for his insanity, including the image of a broken mirror at his former residence at the asylum, and it only seems fitting that the climax should revolve around them. Cronenberg takes advantage of the minimal dialogue and concentrates on telling the story visually. He and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky use tight interiors and confined exteriors to emphasize a claustrophobic sense of Spider's condition. There's Spider's room at the halfway house, where shadows on the wall stretch and a small window is his only connection to the outside world, and his compact childhood home, both of which seem straight out of Kafka. Even when outside, Spider walks down narrow sidewalks—completely void of other human beings, which reiterates his disconnection. As the story progresses and we become more accustomed to Spider's world, the film begins to build more upon expectations, and we wait for the tragic turn of events that will unveil everything. At that moment, though, the film forces us to reexamine everything and come to terms with the internal roots of Spider's behavior.
The film is grotesque without blood and gore and with only one scene of violence. It relies instead on insecurity. At first, we find Spider disquieting because we are unfamiliar with him, but then as we learn about his childhood, we find his upbringing unsettling. It's a bad dream from which he can never awaken, full of conspiracies, insecurities, and cackling barflies. Miranda Richardson plays the only point of sanity and comfort in Spider's childhood, but then she has the difficult task of having to adjust herself to a variety of roles and make them all believable. It's the kind of performance whose skill you do not fully realize until everything comes together. Gabriel Byrne's difficult father is the antithesis to his wife, growing more intimidating as the flashbacks continue. He gives us reason to anticipate some devastating action on his part and surprisingly manages to earn sympathy at the final revelation. On a performance level, though, the film is Ralph Fiennes'. In his blank stare, we see the empty shell of a man. Fiennes focuses not on tics but on a general discomfort with his own body. He mumbles, but when he does talk, it is with the quality of a child. We believe that this is a man who has never moved on from childhood.Spider is deliberate and patient—another similarity to its titular character. Cronenberg has aimed each element of the film to one purpose, and the result is one of film's most startling and convincing accounts of insanity. Even once everything has essentially been cleared up, the film still leaves question upon question and digs into your mind, goading us to take another look. It's a maddening feeling, and well, that's yet another level connecting us to Spider.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.