Sony Pictures Classics
Director David Cronenberg has ventured down dark avenues of the psyche before with his marvelous version of the old sci-fi classic The Fly, starring Jeff Goldblum, and his twisted tale of competing twin gynecologists, Dead Ringers, starring Jeremy Irons and Jeremy Irons. With Spider, Cronenberg focuses inwardly on the troubled mind of Dennis Cleg, a schizophrenic released from a mental hospital a bit prematurely.
Played with tortured physicality and barely intelligible mumbles and murmuring, his deer-in-the-headlights stare guiding his wanderings and echoing his delusions, Ralph Fiennes performs a role that is the dream of most actors -- one that is almost completely internally driven. Cleg, relocated to a halfway house in an industrial 1930s London neighborhood, operates in a state of constant paranoia as he wanders the streets reconstructing the pivotal events of his troubled childhood, scribbling illegible notes in a worn notebook and gathering bits of string and rope off the street.
We are not meant to know which memories are real and which are hallucinations, but Cleg takes us to the kitchen table of his idyllically lighted mother, played by Miranda Richardson, and to the pub where his coldhearted father (Gabriel Byrne) spends his nights. There, a local tart with bad teeth and a screeching laugh, also played by Miranda Richardson, flashes her breast at him, further confusing the already fragile boy, played with chilling solemnity by young Bradley Hall.
Do the father and his tart murder his mother and bury her in the garden, as Dennis believes? Do the events that follow happen as he recalls them or were they manifestations of his delusional state?
We are not meant to know, only to follow the machinations of Cleg's profoundly damaged psyche as he struggles just to be in the world. In one flashback to his time in the mental institution, Cleg's inability to function is startlingly portrayed when, given the perfect opportunity, he is unable to kill himself.
This is dark stuff and it is relentless. There is no second chance, no love life, no Nobel Prize in this schizophrenic's future. There aren't even medications to transport him temporarily out of his inner nightmare. And that makes for a difficult moviegoing experience.
Where Cronenberg could have chosen to delve into some of the more colorful hallucinations of novelist and screenwriter Patrick McGrath's character, utilizing special effects -- as was brilliantly done in another tale of childhood madness, Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy -- he chooses instead to set the movie firmly at the intersection of Cleg's internal torment and the harsh world he must inhabit. The result is compelling and troubling, terror of the purest form. The Butcher Boy was better entertainment and a better movie, but Spider's lasting impact draws largely from its refusal to depart from the claustrophobic nature of Cleg's struggle.
Neo-gothic master McGrath knows his stuff and explores it with a clinical if somewhat voyeuristic zeal. He grew up on the grounds of England's largest mental institution for the criminally insane, where his father was superintendent and later worked with the mentally ill. He understands the human urge to visit the dark side from the safe vantage point of a reader or moviegoer. His partnership with Cronenberg and with a uniquely ambitious and talented cast of actors, including Lynn Redgrave as the overbearing matron of Cleg's halfway house, is an unqualified success, albeit one tough night at the movies.
-- Kathryn Eastburn