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Spider (2002)

by on 2012/08/25

“I’m afraid we are not to be trusted.”

* * * * *

I’m a little confused. I sometimes mix up Ralph Fiennes and Jeremy Irons. Don’t ask why, I don’t know why myself. Furthermore, I’ve mistaken Kafka by Steven Soderbergh, with this movie, Spider, by David Cronenberg.

(Oddly, both directors are “-berg(h)s” and Irons (Dead Ringers) also stars in Kafka.)

Thanks to an ordering accident — this time it wasn’t my fault — an eleventh hour substitute for the video M. Butterfly has shown me enough to tell them apart at last.

On the surface, it appears simple. Dennis “Spider” Cleg (Fiennes) is mentally ill. He shuffles around nearly spastic, muttering to himself. He is moved from an asylum to a halfway house and, perhaps eventually, rehabilitation. He doesn’t make much progress, however, and may not be safe on his own, his desire for solitude and secrecy notwithstanding.

Flashbacks throughout reveal his past or, at least, his ideas of it. He escapes from reality into fantastic memories, his childhood at various stages, his stay at the asylum, and a handful of scenes of apparent work release. Elements within these worlds unravel, overlap, and tangle, with delusion and inconsistency aplenty.

Fienne’s fellow players include Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects), Bradley Hall, John Neville (The X-Files: Fight the Future), Lynn Redgrave (Gods and Monsters), and an impressive multiple-role essay by Miranda Richardson (Sleepy Hollow).

Spider struck me as a What About Bob? or Michael, Tuesdays and Thursdays taken to more serious extremes, not treated comically. While the title character is a sort of Walter Mitty, he’s usually powerless in his visions, which spill into his present situation.

My time with him was somehow never frustrating. I felt and hoped for him. This portrait of mental illness is not necessarily optimistic, and yet it’s sympathetic nonetheless. His curiosity, compulsion, and escapism are paradoxical, sensical nonsense, especially in the context of his experience.

Director Cronenberg and writer Patrick McGrath do a great job of scattering clues, if not quite solutions. Is Cleg’s scribbling indicative of a code, or his knotty state of mind? Is he coping, creative, or even supernatural? What is the relationship between broken glass, cat’s cradle games, puzzle pieces, string webs, and tile patterns? What about the stories he’s told . . . of recollections, snake boots, egg clusters, and the nonlinear arrangement of the entire production itself?

Incredibly, Spider is practically silent, a model of visual storytelling. We hear ambience, sound effects, and occasional dialogue, but the protagonist himself is rarely coherent, and what is said isn’t critical to understanding. And throughout it I was surprised again by composer Howard Shore. His music, I realized at one point, was based on string instruments, either bowed (orchestral) or struck (keyboards).

Now, if I had to quibble — and I do, it’s my illness — there is just this minor nit: in the opening scene, I noticed two or three passers-by glancing at the camera. I immediately assumed it was meant to suggest we were watching from Cleg’s perspective, until he suddenly steps off of a train.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to pass judgement here without seeming unfairly critical of the Cronenberg efforts I’ve reviewed at so far. They are, almost without exception, fascinating entertainment but Spider, for me, was an order of magnitude greater. It comprises many strengths from what’s gone before, imbued with more resonant depth. To paraphrase Neville’s character, that repertoire is full of loud worlds, and this entry is a quiet island.

* * * * *

Rated R

99 minutes

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