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Cronenberg's 'Spider' Gets Inside Unhinged Mind

Ralph Fiennes takes us into an unhinged mind in David Cronenberg's "Spider."
Ralph Fiennes takes us into an unhinged mind in David Cronenberg's "Spider."

Ralph Fiennes delivers brilliant performance

David Cronenberg isn't interested in making "feel-good" movies -- unless you consdier the rush you get from his filmmaking genius as a way of inspiring you -- and his new film "Spider" (opening March 21 at Landmarks Hillcrest Cinemas) represents his unique cinematic vision. When I interviewed David Cronenberg in 1997, the year he made "Crash," he explained, "Most Hollywood filmmaking these days is the cinema of comfort. I'm not looking to make comfortable cinema, there's enough of that around and that's the easiest and safest stuff to do. Somebody's got to do the other stuff." Cronenberg has been that somebody for years and "Spider" definitely represents that other stuff.

Based on Patrick McGrath's novel, "Spider" focuses on Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), a man coping with schizophrenia and haunted memories from the past. As a young boy (exquisitely played by 10-year-old Bradley Hall), Dennis received the nickname Spider for his interest in the intricate webs the tiny creatures spin. The clever open uses textures of rust and chipped paint to create a credit sequence of naturally occurring Rorschach tests, most of which have a spidery look. Cronenberg's first shot of the movie represents the only time we're allowed to see the world from a perspective other than Spider's. The shot takes us through a bustling crowd of people exiting a train. As the crowd thins, the camera finds Spider cautiously emerging. As we move in closer, the rest of the world fades away and we enter Spider's world exclusively.

After spending 20 years in a mental institution, Spider has just been released back into his old neighborhood in the East End of London. He's sent to a halfway house run by the brusque Mrs. Wilkenson (Lynn Redgrave). There he meets Terrence (John Neville), a talkative resident who explains that in a loud world, the halfway house is like an island ruled by a queen. Terrence tries to befriend Spider who keeps very much to himself. But Spider still manages to irritate Mrs. Wilkenson by initially refusing to bathe and insisting on wearing all his clothes at once. As Terrence notes, "Clothes maketh the man. The less the man, the more the need for clothes."


Spider does venture out onto the streets where he grew up and begins to revisit his past. He walks by his old house and finds himself at age ten inside with his mother Mrs. Cleg (Miranda Richardson). He idolizes his mother but seems disconnected from his father (Gabriel Byrne). He looks in on the old pub where he used to have to get his dad and recalls Yvonne, a local tart who had an affair with his dad. Through Spider's eyes, however, the mother and the whore begin to look the same (Miranda Richardson taking on both roles, making them startlingly different). The traumatic even that colors Spiders childhood is the death of his mother at the hands of the adulterous couple. But revisiting the past throws Spider's fragile psyche into turmoil. Soon Mrs. Wilkenson also begins to look like his mother and Spider is forced to confront some painful truths about his past. In an ironic twist, it's a moment of clarity and sanity that convince Spider of how sick he may actually be. But then again, Cronenberg keeps all interpretations open since we dont know which images and memories to trust most.

In contrast to the slickly made "A Beautiful Mind," "Spider" truly places you inside an unhinged mind. "A Beautiful Mind" used tricks and cheats to dupe you into believing that what you were seeing was real and not a figment of the character's delusions. It made the manifestations of schizophrenia play out like an espionage thriller and made it seem like something that could be triumphed over in one quick montage. "Spider," on the other hand, makes clear that it is placing you in Spider's head and letting you see the world through his eyes only. McGrath, who adapted his book to the screen, knows a little something about that world since his father was a superintendent at one of Britain's largest mental institutions for the criminally insane. Later, he worked at a mental health care center in Canada. Add to this the fact that Cronenberg specializes in characters who are often delusional ("Dead Ringers," "Naked Lunch") and you have a film that makes you perceive the ordinary things in life quite differently. Through Spider's eyes, every door or cabinet poses potential risk because if you open it, there could be horrible dangers inside. And human contact poses a similar risk.

While McGrath's book gave Spider a literary voice by having him write a journal. Cronenberg takes a different tact. Spider's journal is now a mass of hieroglyphic scribbles that only he can make sense of. Cronenberg essentially derives Spider of speech as well allowing him to express himself mostly in mumbles that are only occasionally intelligible to others. All this serves to further isolate Spider.

Fiennes devours the challenges of the role. As he did in "Onegi," he takes on a role that seems to go counter to everything an actor usually craves -- namely attention and a desire to be understood. "Onegin" was an exercise in minimalism and Spider is one of almost total retreat. As Spider, Fiennes disappears completely inside the character. He seems to recede from the screen, going deeper into himself and severing all connections to the world. Yet it's also a performance of compassion and Fiennes makes us care for Spider.

As a director, Cronenberg reveals an intellect constantly at work. You feel that you are in the hands of a master at the peak of his craft. Everything in the film is thought through and is there for a purpose. Cronenberg pulls all the technical departments together so that they blend to create a seamless world for Spider. Howard Shore's low rumbling score seems a part of the sound design with the gas works providing an ominous foreshadowing of whats to come. The costumes by Denise Cronenberg, thecinematography by Peter Suschitzky and the production design by Andrew Sanders all combine to create a kind of timeless environment. It's a world inhabited only by people in Spider's life and memory. All else is pushed out of view to create a nondescript, rather monochromatic environment in which we see no cars and hardly any people.


"Spider" (rated R for language, some violence and sexual content) will thrill Cronenberg fans who enjoy his particular brand of uncomfortable cinema.