I wouldn’t recommend the new David Cronenberg movie, Spider, to very many people, even though I really liked it. It’s too fragile and odd to connect with a large number of people. Based on the 1990 novel by Patrick McGrath, the film is named for its title character, a mental patient (Ralph Fiennes) trying to adjust to life after hospitalization. Adapted by McGrath, and shot by Cronenberg’s regular cinematographer, Peter Suschitzsky, in bleak midwinter tones, Spider has none of the spectacular images of violence, perversity and bodily invasion that we’ve come to associate with Cronenberg—images that give even Cronenberg’s weirdest efforts (Scanners, Dead Ringers, Crash) a smidge of commercial potential. There’s a melodramatic, faintly gothic aspect to Spider’s life history, and the film contains one killing, a couple of blunt sexual moments and several threats of violence. But overall, it’s quieter, slower and subtler than the Cronenberg norm—a truly psychological horror story that gets closer to pure character study than anything else he’s done. If you’re at all inclined to see it, you’d better do so without reading the rest of this review; Spider doesn’t contain any The Sixth Sense-style whopper twists, but it does pull off a few small stylistic surprises that I’d rather leave unspoiled.
Still reading? All right, then. The tale begins with Spider’s release from a mental hospital and his journey back to his childhood home in London’s East End, where he moves into a halfway house controlled by an imperious disciplinarian named Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave). From then on, there’s no story, at least in the Screenwriting 101 sense; it’s all an extended flashback to Spider’s childhood as he gropes for an understanding of the forces that damaged him. We learn about his dad, a crude, macho plumber (Gabriel Byrne), and his mother (Miranda Richardson), an intelligent, beautiful woman crushed by the bleakness of her surroundings and humiliated by her husband’s drinking life and roving eye.
Spider remembers his father carrying on an affair with a younger woman named Yvonne (Alison Egan) and his mother finding out about it. He remembers his mother leaving—or maybe dying—and that his father brought Yvonne into their home. He remembers refusing to call her "Mother," even though after a while the woman started to look a lot like Mother. And I do mean a lot: in early scenes of the father’s affair, the woman is played by Egan, and in later scenes, after the marriage, Richardson takes over. Later in the story, Richardson assumes the role of Mrs. Wilkinson as well. A startling shot from Spider’s perspective has Mrs. Wilkinson (played by Richardson) coming down a stairwell, passing in front of a middleground partition, and when she reappears (in the same shot) she’s played by Redgrave. (Isn’t it about time Richardson was elevated into the pantheon of great screen actors? She plays three parts here, and is equally convincing in each.)
As in David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive—two other movies that recast key roles without warning—Spider isn’t interested in explaining its tactics to you. Thinking back, it’s hard to remember exactly when the recasting occurred. This is a fresh twist on a favorite Cronenberg device. The director loves arranging characters (and actors) in mirror configurations. Key actors played multiple roles in his Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch and eXistenZ. In other Cronenberg movies, characters played by different actors are saddled with small details that suggest they’re actually variants of the same person—as in Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly, which had lead characters named Seth Brundle and Stathis Borans.
What makes Spider noteworthy (and uncommercial) is McGrath and Cronenberg’s resolve to put us inside Spider’s consciousness from start to finish. When you’re watching Spider, most of the time you’re looking at one of two things: locked-down shots of the emotionally stunted hero and subjective representations of the world the way Spider sees it. As in Naked Lunch and eXistenZ, it’s difficult (sometimes impossible) to know whether you’re looking at "reality" or a character’s fractured interpretation of it. Cronenberg moves from the present to the past, and from our "reality" to Spider’s reality, without any fancy special effects or flashy transitions. Most of the shifts are done with a cut or dissolve, and a couple are done with no cuts at all. Spider is told with such muted precision that one has to assume Cronenberg wants to confuse and unbalance us, to force us to share the insane Spider’s dislocation, his social autism, his terror at not knowing what to believe about anything. You might not like the result, but it’s no accident, and it’s clearly the work of artists.
As the movie unreels, its eerily certain tone clashes with the surreal events taking place on screen. The clash between image and tone raises questions about the "truth" of Spider’s life, past and present—and then Cronenberg stubbornly refuses to answer them. Spider is in every major scene—even the intriguingly theatrical flashbacks, which allow the adult Spider to stand in the same space as his boyhood incarnation, mutely observing his family’s strife. Even scenes that contain neither the young nor the adult Spider appear to have been imagined by Spider; they have an over-the-top, comic-bookish tone that suggests the worst-case-scenario fantasies of a boy (or a man who still thinks like a boy).
Spider unbalances us further by revealing—sometimes slyly celebrating—its refusal to give easy answers. Spider keeps obsessive notes on his own memories, but they’re gibberish—hatch marks arranged in vertical and horizontal columns. Immediately after a key flashback that might be unreliable, there’s a cut to the adult Spider’s notes; he covers them with one hand, denying us a glimpse of something we can’t understand anyway. In another deliberately confusing scene, young Spider checks out a postcard showing two naked ladies. One of the ladies appears to be his father’s mistress. The other is his mother—except in the photo, his mother has her own face, attached to a lean young torso.
The film’s slow pace and closed-off personality indicate that Cronenberg is not the least bit interested in whether you like Spider. He is interested only in doing justice to Spider, as is Fiennes—who comes on like Anthony Perkins playing the ghost of Samuel Beckett. His shuffling walk, question-mark posture and quivering reactions take him about as far from movie star wattage as any actor can get. It’s a slightly theatrical, externalized performance, one that’s bound to invite charges of overplaying. So be it. Like the movie, Fiennes’ performance is so controlled, purposeful and fully imagined that it seems not to care if I like it or not. I liked it.