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3.9 out of 5 stars
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on 27 October 2007
After the critical mauling of two of his previous films, the incomprehensible Naked Lunch and the equally preposterous Existenz, and the moral outcry caused by the filming of J G Ballard's crash, you would have expected David Cronenberg to go back to what he does so well, the genre known as "body horror" that he practically invented.
So it was a bit of a surprise when he came back with this movie, a small, intimate exploration of one mans mental illness. The film focuses on Dennis Clegg (brilliantly portrayed by Ralph Fiennes, who immerses himself in the character and clearly relishes the challenge of portraying this mans fractured mental state), a man recently released after a long stay in a mental institution, who returns to his home turf and finds rooms in a bleak halfway house run by Mrs Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave in a fantastic supporting turn playing a woman so unsympathetic to her charges that it is something akin to a slap in the face). It is in this bleak environment that Dennis (or spider as he was nicknamed by his beloved mother) attempts to piece together his fractured childhood memories. Flitting in time between a grimy London of the 80's, Spiders present, and his equally colourless childhood in the 60's, his memories gradually come to focus on the apparent spur of the moment murder of his doting mother (played with a quiet dignity by a wonderful Miranda Richardson) by his brutish boozing father (Gabriel Byrne). However, the fact that Richardson also plays the floozy who takes the place of Spiders mother in the Clegg house following this event suggests that everything may not be as it seems.
And it is the truth underlying this tragic event that we, the viewers are here to witness as we try to understand this confused, muttering and crushingly lonely cipher of a man. This is a film that offers no easy explanations, with no men in white coats pooping up to offer an easy to digest answer to Spiders haunted mind. Abandoning his more recognizable milieu, Cronenberg has fashioned a film that is horrific in a much more subtle, disturbing way, and marks a welcome change of direction for the Canadian auteur, whilst still dealing with his common themes of psychology and transformation, though here focused firmly on the cerebral rather than the anatomical.
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on 19 March 2011
I found this film, although quite dark, a bit of fresh air away from the tedious, predictable plots that Hollywood so often produces. Both Gabriel Byrne and Ralph Fiennes are fantastic and it's well worth a look if you fancy somehting a bit different.
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on 4 January 2013
This is a superb film about a mentally ill man (Ralph Fiennes) who takes residence in a halfway house. He reverts to part of his childhood and eventually discovers the truth about his parents relationship and the death of his mother.
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on 28 July 2008
A subtle, slow and sad film, this. Ralph Fiennes, when he's on top of his game, does understatement as well as anybody, as anyone who's seen his performance in The Constant Gardener will know. Here, he is heartbreaking as the deeply troubled protaganist of the title; a stutterning, shambling man in a scruffy coat, whose stubby, chewed, nicotine-stained fingers speak of a soul in torment as poignantly as any words could. Released from an asylum after an unspecified number of years, Spider returns to his old haunts and slowly, gradually, the ghosts from his past that have helped shape this piece of human wreckage begin to emerge.
This is not an easy film to watch. Cronenberg will not be rushed, and does not patronise the viewer by offering easy answers or solutions. As it's essentially seen through the eyes of a delusional schizophrenic, neither does he make it entirely clear what's real and what's fantasy. But these things are what make it such a unique and rewarding experience. I'm not going to ruin it by telling you what I think it means - watch it and make up your own minds.
Fiennes is, as I've already said, superb. Gabriel Byrne also lends his usual presence as Spider's taciturn, brooding father, and Bradley Hall is creepily effective as his younger self, but it's Miranda Richardson who steals the show in a dual role as Spider's mother and the loud-mouthed, tarty Yvonne.
This is an excellent study of madness and maternal obsession (to call it Freudian would be to underate its subtlety), which keeps you thinking until long after the credits roll. It's not a film to watch on a romantic evening in, and will probably test the patience of many. But if you are a grown-up seeking a perfect antidote to Hollywood shlock, then I urge you to watch it.
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on 4 December 2010
There's something intriguing about most of David Cronenberg's work.He was known originally as a cult horror film director in the '70s and '80s featuring typically graphic scenes from classics like Shivers, Rabid, Scanners and The Fly (his biggest hit). In the '90s and 00s Cronenberg moved away from horror and science fiction to make thrillers and then this highly unusual film, Spider. The film's title initially misleads as it has nothing to do with spiders or arachnophobia, but instead is a disturbing psychological drama seen through the eyes of a schizophrenic. The 'spider' is just a nickname for a lonely and strange little boy growing up in the 1950s, who seems to have a fascination with spider webs and cats cradles. He even has a hobby of adorning his bedroom with huge cat's cradles of string.

The film starts out with Spider (Ralph Fiennes) now an adult disembarking from a train, on his way to a boarding house in the East End of London, the area where he grew up. He has been reduced to a shambling wreck of a man who just stumbles around muttering apparent inaudible nonsense.The boarding house is a shabby, grim Dickensian place, whose residents are elderly men, who have fallen on hard times. It is there we see Spider trying to piece his life together and ascertain how he came to end up in such a state. He does this by keeping a notebook of events he recalls from his childhood and he continues to make entries as childhood memories return to haunt him. The film then backtracks to that period of time when we learn about Spider and his relationship with his Mum and Dad.

During the film we (or rather Spider) witness his father kill his mother after he has started an affair with a drunken London tart, brilliantly played by Miranda Richardson. For reasons that become clear, she also plays Spider's mother and shares the role of the housekeeper of the boarding house with Lynn Redgrave, but I don't want to give too much away. The question is did Spider's father actually murder his mother or did Spider imagine it all? The harsh truth is revealed towards the end of the film when the purpose of the story comes together.

The film deliberately moves at a slow pace reflecting Spider's personality, and it is certainly not for everyone. It's basically a study of schizophrenia and I think it's well portrayed. If you are expecting the earlier type of Cronenberg films, forget it. This is much more akin to an art-house type film, and you will need a certain amount of patience to get into it. Subtitles should be switched on, so that you can follow what Spider is mumbling about. I'd say the film needs more than one viewing to fully understand and appreciate what's going on. But nevertheless I found this Cronenberg film fascinating if depressing, and very different to what you would expect from him. It's also Ralph Fiennes finest acting role that I've seen so far, and arguably Cronenbergs greatest film. I revisit this film time and again, and get more out of it every time I do.
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VINE VOICEon 4 December 2010
The rainy,grim,grey streets of East London,dominated by the Gasometers,streets of bricked-up windows and doorways,or unpeopled.Set in the late 50s of post-war desolation.Ralph Fiennes plays Dennis Clegg,inching his way slowly from the train to the half-way house for the mentally ill,between hospital and community,run by Mrs.Wilkinson(Lynne Redgrave),the formidable matriarch of fear.He mumbles hesitatingly.John Neville plays the loquacious,grandiose Terence,with the humour of the institutionalised who welcomes him to this Dickensian, ramshackle home.Clegg has been away in a mental institution for years.He is now returning to explore his memories, delusions,paranoid thoughts and fears of the trauma of his schizophrenic past.His notebook is used to record this journey into time and trauma.Jig-saw pieces filled in by conjecture.Isolated,lonely,with no friends to dispel his webby thoughts.As the sights and smells of a dank landscape permeate his fractured consciousness, Spider begins to recall his turbulent boyhood as the only child to an abusive plumber (Byrne) and his wife (Richardson).He explores the outer environment of café's,pubs and canal seats,near to the environment he grew up in on the silk of memories.

Clegg has a deep love for his mother,who is the archetype for all women to him.He was closer to her than to his father.He believes his father(Byrne)Bill,killed his mother and took up with a tart.It seems that his mother(Richardson) and himself are neglected by an alcoholic husband and father.His mother has fondly called him `Spider', because of his love of cat's cradles and spider's webs.She becomes mixed up in his head with Yvonne, the tart,also played by Richardson,who Bill makes love to by the canal or at the allotment.He sees or hallucinates the killing of his mother by Bill.Yvonne comes to live with them,usurping his mother's role.Again what is real and what is delusion are hard to fathom.In the present,Yvonne soon inhabits Mrs.Wilkinson's role in the half-way house.He steals into her room planning to kill her.When she wakes up we see it's Redgrave's Mrs.Wilkinson.We also see the way Spider junior rigs string up to the gas supply and turns it on.The tart is killed but as his father drags her body out in the street,he is crying over Spider's mother's body.Through the protagonist's narrative, truth and illusion intertwine.The psychic events,the subjectivity of an unreliable narrator,drive this film slowly forward,memories distorted by perception.Hanging on a fragile precipice of Spider's creation,the film images represent the beliefs of what happened, to conceal what really happened.

As Spider delves deeper into his past his hallucinations escalate.Fiennes portrayal is his best ever,stripping away all the rhetoric of `acting',to become seemingly a real schizophrenic.The cinematography is 1st rate showing a reductive,realistic,impoverished environment.The music too is beautifully selected.Witness how `Silent Night' captures all the fled tenderness,Spider associates with his mother.Richardson is truly magnificent in 3 roles. Cronenburg has honed his art with a Beckettian austerity,bleak interiors,drab colours,no longer ram-raiding the subconscious,he uncovers and disentangles the psychology of a 'dead soul' beneath layers of paranoid schizophrenia,unravelling the disconnected psyche,spaced out for years on solitary musings in the hinterland of his mind.This has the clarity and sombreness of a masterpiece.Cronenburg's best film yet.
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Rather than his usual niche market of perversity and naked violence, Cronenberg has made an excellent arthouse film about the struggle of a disturbed man who returns home. Fiennes is Mr. Cleg, a schizophrenic man who has left a mental asylum for the first time since his childhood. Checking into a halfway house in his old neighborhood, run by a tough old matron, he goes about exploring his childhood haunts, mixing past and present in painful recollections of some kind of a trauma. This technique is extremely effective in showing not just the disarray of his mind, but also his slippery hold on reality.

The story that emerges has meaning, i.e. his illness is not merely a "chemical imbalance" but linked to experience. As it unfolds, he portrays his family: a loving mother, a cold and apparently abusive father, whose relationship with a local hooker disrupts their home. All the while, Cleg is writing down his ideas in code in a tiny notebook that he hides. As the process progresses, the viewer can see how he is fighting to see the truth, in spite of the lies he has weaved around himself like the webs that obsess him. It is remarkable how well each piece fits as in a puzzle. When it emerges, the truth is far worse than what he imagined (which I won't give away).

Fiennes is amazing in the role. He has to show all the inner turmoil by his gestures and posture, which exude the broken state of his self and mind. It is so believable it is painful to watch.

I would recommend renting this - you won't want to watch it again. But it is a masterpiece.
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on 7 March 2010
This is a good film.Let me state that at the outset of this review in case anyone thinks that I cant see the merits others do in it.It is understated thoughtfull and contains some scenes of genuine strangness..but am I alone in thinking that Ralph Fiennes is spectacularly miscast?He struggles to convey adequately(in my opinion) the nightmare of mental illness preferring to rely on a poorly observed shuffling and mumbling and he is not helped by Miranda Richardsons overtly cockney accent.Her constant repeating of the word "Plumber" in a voice and with inflections that make her sound like a pastiche victorian hooker were a source of much annoyance and humour to me.The main problem it seems to me lies at the core of the film namely the director.I think that, being canadian ,he has filmed a representation of london that never exsisted...and yes it is not lost on me that the representation is spiders own confused one.All in all a good film but with inadequate grimness,realism and gravity in the main role to make it great.
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on 4 November 2014
Probably should give this a 5 star as I cannot think of a flaw. Fiennes is at his best- yes, creepy but he has done creepy better than anyone I know since Silence of the Lambs.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 26 February 2015
If there is one thing that Canadian film-maker David Cronenberg can’t be criticised for, it’s a lack of diversity in his work. From the early horrors (with a touch of sci-fi thrown in) Shivers and Rabid, through more subtly impressive works such as Dead Ringers, to the later, more conventionally impressive, A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises, the man has frequently struggled against the commercial odds to deliver a never-less-than-intriguing body of work. Based on Patrick McGrath’s novel of the same name, 2002’s Spider, which tells the tale of Ralph Fiennes’ psychologically troubled Mr (Dennis) Cleg, just released from a mental institution and recounting the experiences (we are led to believe) that got him there in the first place, replays Cronenberg’s recurring theme of delving into the human psyche and unearthing the (frequently) dark things you’re liable to find there.

For me, Spider is something of a mixed bag (like many Cronenbergs). At its best, it reminds me of the likes of Polanski’s The Tenant (for me, its closest comparator) or Repulsion, with elements of Barton Fink and (even) Eraserhead thrown in. Fiennes is (again) outstanding here as the mumbling, nervous Mr Cleg, who finds himself ensconced in the 1970s/80s(?) East End boarding house run by (a brilliant) Lynne Redgrave’s domineering landlady, Mrs Wilkinson, and peopled by curiosities like John Neville’s well-spoken 'philosopher’ Terrence. Cronenberg sets up the film’s mysterious, sombre mood brilliantly – the dull, grey hues and depressing claustrophobia of Cleg’s 'new home’ evocatively (and idiosyncratically) depicted by Peter Suschitsky’s cinematography and Howard Shore’s restrained score (the two also combining to provide an outstanding opening title sequence, by the way). As we learn (via flashback) of the troubled Dennis’ (nicknamed 'Spider’) youth – a dysfunctional home with Gabriel Byrne’s wayward father, Bill, and Miranda Richardson’s insecure mother (the former also tempted by (again) Richardson’s brassy Yvonne) – the film becomes a little too predictable (clichéd even) for me (though, in mitigation, I guess these are meant to be 'dream-like’ (parodic?) recollections of an 'insane’ man).

Having said this, both Byrne and (particularly) Richardson deliver fine performances and Cronenberg also provides some impressive 'morphing’ of dreams and reality (in Cleg’s mind) and some stunning imagery (the 'broken glass shard/spider’s web moment’, for example). On balance, there is a good deal to admire here and I would put Spider in among my top 3 or 4 Cronenbergs.
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