on 10 January 2008
After glancing over some the previous comments for Spider (2002), as well as several other somewhat similar films that explore various comparable themes, I have come to the conclusion that audiences today don't want to be challenged. A sad fact indeed, since David Cronenberg's Spider is one of the more challenging English-language films of the last couple of years.
Told in an entirely subjective fashion that owes much to the work of writers like William S. Burroughs, Franz Kafka, Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the film draws the audience into the lead character's mind and leaves them there to wander through a wavering maze of fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, the conscious and the subconscious, etc. The symbolic side of the film sees Cronenberg at his best; rejecting the adolescent sex and violence of his earlier work and instead building on the same highly psychological mind-space previously explored in his 1988 film Dead Ringers. There's also a certain reminiscent feeling to his two controversial literary adaptations of the 1990's, Naked Lunch (1991) and Crash (1998), both of which depicted a world as viewed through the eyes of a tormented character.
Cronenberg has always enjoyed chronicling the downward spiral of characters that have been psychologically damaged, but with Spider, novelist Patrick McGrath has created one of the ultimate cinematic schizophrenics. From his oversized shoes, to his nonsense book of gibberish, Spider is every rambling lunatic we've ever come across rolled into one. In lesser hands, the performance could have very easily veered towards Rain Man territory; however, with Fiennes in the lead role, this was never a danger. Having exorcised all traces of hammy overacting as The Tooth Fairy in Red Dragon (2002), he is here free to create a subtle, less showy role that requires little besides simply 'reacting'. His appearance is one of outright dishevelment throughout, as he sits in smoky canteens decked out in a dirty rain-coat, scruffy trousers and with bright yellow nicotine stains on his fingers. If we could walk into the film, we get the feeling that the stench of urine would be everywhere.
When not chronicling the darker side of mental illness or the terrible living conditions of the British halfway-house system, Spider works best as a gripping detective story. We, the audience are here to follow Spider as he traces his various webs back to that one fateful night; studying the facts and putting the pieces back together. There is even a semi-nonsense voice over/stream of conscious thought pattern mumbled by our 'hero' throughout, which helps shed some light on the mystery at hand without necessarily giving too much away. The film also works as a showcase for underrated actors. Fiennes, of course, in the lead is outstanding, but we also have Miranda Richardson as young spider's mother, as well as acting as the film's central enigma. Some have criticised her performance as being almost larger than life, like a caricature, but she is supposed to be playing the fevered incarnation of womanhood as depicted from the mind of a very troubled boy; so what do you expect? As mentioned before, the film works from an entirely subjective viewpoint, in which everything in the film has been rearranged and readapted to better suit the crumbling mindset of the central character.
With this in mind, Cronenberg creates a depiction of Britain that has more in common with The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) than anything resembling old London town. There are no cars in the film and, save for a few scenes, very little in the way of extras. This allows Spider to wander the empty streets and empty allotments as if constantly roaming around his own damaged and alienated psyche. Gabriel Byrne is also interesting as Spider's father, but his performance is one of great subtly. Even more subtle and criminally underrated is John Neville as Spider's only companion in the halfway house. He gives a very restrained, understated portrayal of psychosis and old age, which is both intriguing and disturbing; with many viewers picking up on the circular thematic of these two different characters. Is Terence a prototype for Spider? Perhaps. Even more intriguing is the character of Mrs Wilkinson, who may or may not be the very same woman who initially flashes her breast at young Spider, thus triggering the events of the film. If she fails to register, it is perhaps down to the streamlining of the character from book to film, which will inevitably leave out major plot details.
Regardless, Cronenberg ties all of these ideas into the images of the film; creating frames of Kafka-like complexity, with damp, bleak, washed-out scenes brimming with symbolism. Try and count how many times we see Spider framed through bars and grates, or how many times the web symbolism is used. The obsession with gas is also a clever allusion to later events and wonderfully represented by the looming gasworks that linger constantly on the horizon. This is a film that rewards multiple viewings, and, as a fan of engrossing, suspenseful, intelligent cinema, I greet it with open arms. Some will no doubt find the film to be a real chore, while others, I would hope, might find something to enjoy within this dark and troubled story. Sufficed to say, for those willing to allow themselves to be tangled in the spider's web, the film will reward....