FILM REVIEW ***
Spider Weaves Discomfort
Director David Cronenberg Identifies With Protagonist In His Latest Flick
Directed by David Cronenberg
Written by Patrick McGrath
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne
It’s never comfortable seeing the inside of a deranged man’s head. Whether cooped up in a shabby room with Raskolnikov or sitting in a blood-spattered Manhattan apartment with Patrick Bateman, dread usually trails the reader’s fascination. David Cronenberg’s Spider, an adaptation of the gothic novel by Patrick McGrath, does not apologize for or alleviate that discomfort. Rather, it is the point, embodied in the eponymous protagonist played by Ralph Fiennes, and in the lonely London he inhabits.
Like Crime and Punishment, American Psycho or Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy, Spider endears us to our hero before plunging us into the depths of his lunacy. Spider (a nickname from his mother) is Dennis Cleg, who arrives in the East End of London after twenty years in a mental institution. Cronenberg follows every distracted step as Spider makes his way to a barren halfway house run by the fierce Mrs. Wilkinson, (Lynn Redgrave).
Fiennes’ performance is so complete that the nervous rustling of his fingers inside his cluttered pockets and the shuffling of his heavy black shoes demand the full attention of the camera. Best known for dialogue-heavy roles in films such as Sunshine, The English Patient and The End of the Affair, Fiennes’ work here is pure physicality. Spider does not talk but mumbles; he does not interact but retreats.
Even when Fiennes is sitting still, his shifting, twitching and mumbling reveal the chaos beneath the surface. One of the film’s best lines comes when Spider is sitting beside Terrence (John Neville) in the halfway house. Mrs. Wilkinson protests when she sees “Mr. Cleg” is wearing four collared shirts under his vest and coat.
“But the clothes maketh the man,” Terrence feebly argues, (every man in the house is terrified of Redgrave’s Wilkinson) “and the less there is of the man, the more the need for clothes.”
Once inside his dingy room, Spider begins to unravel. Writing in a tiny notebook, in obsessive, incomprehensible hieroglyphics, Spider attempts to reconstruct his fractured past. Cronenberg’s cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, with whom he’s worked exclusively since Dead Ringers (1988), chose a low-contrast filmstock to reflect Spider’s schizophrenic consciousness.
Andrew Sanders’ art direction and Denise Cronenberg’s costume design complete the sense of despair, decay and distrust that characterizes Spider’s world. The only unfortunate production element is the overbearing score by Howard Shore, quite disappointing considering his Oscar-winning music for Fellowship of the Ring.
The past that Spider recalls would make anyone insane. His beautiful mother (Miranda Richardson) takes repeated abuse from his pub-crawling father Bill (Gabriel Byrne). When Bill meets the “fat tart” Yvonne (also played by Richardson) at the pub one night, the abuse escalates and Spider’s world implodes. Young Spider, played with disarming rigidity by Bradley Hall, watches his father bring the loud drunken Yvonne into the bed where his mother used to sleep.
It’s a twisted joke Cronenberg plays on us, as Richardson as Yvonne -- bleached blonde with garish makeup and black teeth takes the place of Richardson as virtuous Mrs. Cleg. The good mother / bad mother dichotomy rivals that of Fatal Attraction. In fact, there is a misogynist pulse that beats through the entire film. Yvonne becomes everywoman in Spider’s twisted Oedipal logic, and it gives the film the chance to blame all life’s evils on the fallen woman. But then Spider’s “logic” is illogical, and in the end we’re not even sure if Yvonne ever really existed.
When asked about the film, Cronenberg told a French journalist -- “I am Spider.” Coming from a director such identification is normally downright nauseating, but in this case it rings true. Cronenberg has always been fascinated by the gap between surface and reality, creating metaphors for the artistic process and lifting up rugs to see the bugs crawling underneath. Spider, like his other adaptations of “unfilmable” books -- Naked Lunch, Crash -- is distinctively Cronenbergian: relentless, beautiful and sad. If you can take a little discomfort, Spider weaves a lot in return.