Spider is a convincing film about madness – as convincing a film as the sane could make. It is a doorway into the kind of thinking that is barely understandable; it tries to comprehend a man for whom the past is more traumatic than even his hopelessly crippled present.
Spider Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) is a broken crutch of a man who doesn’t speak clearly, and he does not look at anyone – at least not when they’re looking at him. Other people are scenery: They just happen to talk.
Spider does not come pre-chewed. The protagonist is disturbing, and the least accessible of Cronenberg’s films1. Watching Fiennes, we realize that it is impossible to relate to him. The entire film is Spider’s mindset, chaotic and unresolved.
There are flashbacks. Trying to find the key to his madness, Spider sees himself as a child. Maybe it was the death of his mother, or the intrusion of a stepmom (both played by Miranda Richardson). But Spider isn’t that simple, and by the end we can’t be sure of anything.
Spider lives at a halfway house, a stop between life in the asylum and release into the world at large. Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave) is the landlord who barges in to bathe him – a sort of tyrant mother. Indeed, she becomes Miranda Richardson, and Spider plots against her.
As usual Cronenberg elicits good performances. For most actors, insanity is a cue to lose all of their good taste and become hams. But Fiennes goes inward until he isn’t there at all. There is no charm or attractiveness, no loud outbursts or goofy twitches. He is strange, but not lovably so.
So what, you ask, is the point? Well, to answer that, you have to know what you want from a movie, and what you’re willing to put into it. If you want to pass ninety minutes of your day2, Spider is not for you. But Spider isn’t a foil for a plot. He’s a character of psychological depth and consistency, a speculative window into madness and an honest attempt to deal with a shattered personality.
See the movie for the frankness and sensitivity and intelligence that it brings to a subject that has been exploited. See it for the craft of the performers and producers. See it because it’s David Cronenberg3, and that means something.
1This includes the drug addict in Naked Lunch who shoots his wife and has conversations with bugs.
2Hell, who doesn’t? Nobody pays you (or me, for that matter) to watch a movie, and really, there is no accounting for taste.
3Some reviews think that Spider is different ground for Cronenberg, since it doesn’t have typewriters that talk from sphincters, or intelligent venereal diseases. If you think that Cronenberg’s art is defined by heads that explode, we cannot see eye to eye. Men in his films are defined by their disease, and how they succumb to it. Spider is no different.