In films such as “Dead Ringers” and “Existenz”, director David Cronenberg has created visions of the dark, bizarre, and disturbing. His newest film, “Spider”, is yet another foray into the peculiar, with less gore than usual but a subject matter as disturbing as always.
“Spider” is the story of Dennis “Spider” Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), a schizophrenic who has just been released from a mental institution to a halfway house, but who most definitely has not conquered his disease. The halfway house is run by the intimidating Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave) and is full of strange inhabitants. Most of Spider’s day is taken up by wandering, both through the streets of the town and through the webs of his mind, as he relives his childhood memories. In this bizarre turn, adult Spider sits in corners of rooms watching, mumbling, and writing while young Spider (Bradley Hall) and his parents move about, fighting, eating, talking. This meshing of past and present is jarring and confusing at first, but eventually just becomes an annoyance, as shot after shot of adult Spider looking on in pain becomes unbearably boring and unnecessary.
The childhood memories reveal that Spider endured an alcoholic father (Gabriel Byrne) who murdered his loving mother (Miranda Richardson) and invited his mistress, a very lewd local woman named Yvonne (also Miranda Richardson) to move in as a replacement for his dead wife. As the film progresses, it becomes more and more clear that Spider’s memories may not be entirely accurate. While he traverses through the webs of memories in his mind, he arrives at what he believes to be the shocking truth of what really happened to his mother 20 years earlier.
Of course, the word “shocking” suggests a climax or excitement, and that is one thing “Spider” lacks. Just over 90 minutes, this film remarkably seems to stretch time in such a way as to make each minute feel like an hour. Understandably Cronenberg wanted to create more of a character study than a film with a classic narrative plot, but sitting through long stretches of nothingness between bursts of enlightenment about Spider’s state is too trying on the viewer, and results in a lack of empathy for Spider and for all of the other characters.
The acting in this film is not enough to pull it up from the dregs of the pacing, but it is remarkable nonetheless. Fiennes gives an excellent performance as the sometimes meek, sometimes deranged adult Spider. His hunched-over body, mumbling, and piercing stares are more than enough to create the image of a struggling schizophrenic. Everything from his rumpled hair to his dirty fingernails is perfection. His character, with little more to do than sit and watch young Spider, does become a little trying at times, but this is certainly no fault of Fiennes’.
Equally good are Gabriel Byrne as Spider’s father and Bradley Hall as young Spider. Byrne skillfully manages to create the contradictory portraits of the abusive, alcoholic father and the concerned loving father that Spider confuses in his mind, playing both versions with such ease that it becomes as hard for the viewer to distinguish which one is the “real” one as it is for Spider. Hall also manages a good performance, although like Fiennes’ character, he is often relegated to the role of watching the events around him with a pained look. Still, he is compelling in his scenes with his mother, as his unconditional love for her is made abundantly clear.
In this array of fine performances, including Lynn Redgrave’s, the best comes from Miranda Richardson in her dual role. The double casting is probably a way to illustrate Spider’s confusion, and it does succeed in heightening the viewer’s confusion. Richardson so effortlessly portrays both the loving mother and the lewd, crude local harlot that besides the similarity in looks, it is hard to believe that it is the same actress. She very skillfully creates a compelling portrait of the victimized mother and a disturbingly perverse one of Yvonne.
The high-quality acting, decent camera work, and the effective color scheme of dull grays and browns, create a fairly well-made film. Cronenberg is a master at capturing the unease of his characters and the filth of the world around them. From peeling paint to yellow bathwater, he creates an environment so upsetting that even without any gore, there is more than enough to make you cringe.
The major flaw of this film, which seems to have so many of the important pieces in place, is the pacing. Performances that are so skillful should create compelling characters, and they do at first. But when they have little more to do than stand around, and no real character development takes place, even these fine performances can become grating. Ultimately, “Spider”, despite successes in certain areas, is a disappointment.