Spider. Sony Pictures Classics presents a film directed by David Cronenberg. Written by Patrick McGrath, based on his novel. Running time: 98 minutes. Rated R (for sexuality, brief violence and language). Starring Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, Lynn Redgrave, Bradley Hall.


Warning: This review contains obscure spoilers as to certain aspects of Spider's story. If you wish to see the film with no prior information, come back to this review after viewing the film.

Spider, based on the Patrick McGrath novel of the same name, represents a departure for director David Cronenberg. Instead of a special effects film like some of his more recent efforts, we are given a fascinating look into the mind of a severly mentally ill person. All the special effects we need are provided by Ralph Fiennes's astounding performance.

The film begins with a wonderful shot of a train screeching to a hault. The camera pans down the lenght of the train, as the passengers begin to step off. The last person to exit the train is Dennis "Spider" Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), and we can immediately tell that something is slightly off about him. He shuffles down the sidewalk, muttering to himself and picking up debris off the street (audience members familiar with psychology will be able to tell that Dennis suffers from schizophrenia, although it is never explicitly stated). Dennis moves into a shelter run by a bitch of a landlady, Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave). We soon learn that the shelter is a halfway home, and Dennis has recently been released from a mental institution.

The idea of presenting a movie through the eyes of a mentally ill individual is not original. But the way it is implemented in Spider seems fresh because of the nature of the story. Much of the story is told through flashbacks, detailing Dennis's childhood. His mother (Miranda Richardson), is a kindly woman, and his father, Bill (Gabriel Byrne), is a frequent bar-goer. One night, when Bill is visiting Yvonne (also Richardson), a tramp from the bar, in a garden shed, Dennis's mother walks in on them. Bill murders her with a shovel, and buries her body in the garden. Bill brings Yvonne back home, and acts as if nothing has happened, but Yvonne is not as subtle. "Yes, it's true he murdered your mother. Try to think of me as your mother now," she tells the young Dennis (Bradley Hall).

However, it is impossible to be sure of anything we are seeing. Because his mother and Yvonne are both played by Richardson, we are not sure whether both of them exist, if either of them exist, if they are actually the same person, or if the entire memory is really just a schizophrenic delusion. Not until the climax (if it can really be called that) is it made clear as to what aspects of his memories are to be trusted.

Even in Cronenberg's lesser films, the atmosphere has always been engaging. Spider is no exception. The England portrayed in this film is dark, empty, and bleak, much like Dennis. There are very few bright colors to be seen - Spider might as well have been shot in black and white. Howard Shore's haunting score enhances the atmosphere, and adds to our growing distrust of what is occuring onscreen.

Ralph Fiennes has recently become regarded as somewhat of a sex symbol. Many people forget, however, that his first major performance came as the cruel nazi guard in Schindler's List. Now, after a brief foray into the romantic comedy, Fiennes is back, and his performance as Spider Cleg is certain to be one of the best male performances of 2003. He hunches is back, shuffles his feet, and mutters incomprehensibly. Only when what he says is important is it completely possible to understand his speech. Miranda Richardson is also excellent in her two seperate roles. Despite my previous knowledge of the film, I was still uncertain as to whether both characters were being played by Richardson. Gabriel Byrne cashes in on his greatest asset - being able to toy with the audience's opinion of his character. At one moment he may seem cruel and dispicable; in others he is a loving father and husband. This switching is essential to the success of the flashback story, as it directly affects the audience's thoughts on the trustworthiness of Dennis's memories.

The major problem with Spider is Dennis himself. As good as Fiennes is, it is impossible to relate to Spider, because of his mental problems. Dennis is a distant person, and the decision to make him such makes sense, but it keeps us from truly connecting with the character. The film also drags at times, and I wish more time had been spent developing Dennis as an adult.

But these are relatively minor complaints for a movie like this. The strength of the acting and direction alone make this one of the more pleasant surprises of the year, and the fact that the initial run of the film is so small is disparaging. If you're a fan of challenging cinema, Spider is good enough to be worth a trip.

© 2003 Matt Noller