reviewed by Ken Hanke
Saying that a David Cronenberg picture is strange is on a par with announcing that the Pope is Catholic. But declaring that his newest, Spider, is possibly the strangest movie Cronenberg has ever made since his introduction to commercial filmmaking (with Shivers, a.k.a. They Came From Within, in 1975) is, on the other hand, a statement of some note.
Cronenberg is, after all, the man who made Rabid, in which a vampiric penis sprouted from Marilyn Chambers’ armpit. He is the man who brought William S. Burroughs’ “unfilmable” novel Naked Lunch to the screen (complete with fully functioning “mugwumps” and gooey organic typewriters), in the process making perhaps the finest film ever about the act of writing.
The really strange thing about Spider is that it contains none of Cronenberg’s usual array of physical horrors. There’s nary a hint of the body turning nasty on its owner — at least in the literal sense. With Spider, Cronenberg completely inhabits the realm of the mind. In one sense, bodies are still not to be trusted, since the very nature of identity is at question throughout the film. But his approach here is a departure in stylistic terms — I wouldn’t call it subdued or restrained, except for the fact that there is no actual violence in the film (the one overt act happens off-screen).
This is both very much a Cronenberg film and very much not. In many ways, it feels more like the work of David Lynch. In other respects, it has something of the sense of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (which may be the movie it most resembles), though there are also hints of Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy. The problem with trying to find parallels is that, for all its differences, Spider finally fits so snugly into Cronenberg’s oeuvre that no one else could have made it.
The story follows Dennis Clegg (Ralph Fiennes in the most un-movie-star performance imaginable), nicknamed “Spider” by his mother because of his propensity for making webs out of bits of collected string. Dennis is being reintroduced into society — via a halfway house run by Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave) — after a stint in an insane asylum. Ironically, this joyless establishment is in the very neighborhood in which Dennis grew up — and where his troubles began. Or at least that seems to be the case. The trick with Spider is that everything in the film is learned from Dennis — and he’s hardly the most trustworthy narrator.
When British horror novelist Patrick McGrath first attempted to translate his book to a screenplay for Cronenberg, he included a narration to help the viewer tell the difference between truth and illusion. Cronenberg immediately rejected the idea, wanting instead to take the viewer completely inside the head of his main character. Whether or not Dennis’s memories are perhaps no more than the fantasies he madly scribbles in a little notebook — in some indecipherable personal alphabet — they are all we are allowed to know. And these memories/fantasies do lead him and the viewer to a final truth — one that we may guess, and that Dennis is incapable of handling.
Cronenberg’s most startling conceit is in having the adult Dennis actually inhabit his childhood memories, wandering through them like a ghostly stage manager, often speaking the words for the other characters before they do (these are among the few points in the film where Dennis says anything that can be clearly understood). What he sees is his idealized mother (Miranda Richardson) displaced in the affections of his abusive father, Bill (Gabriel Byrne), by a bar slut named Yvonne (also played by Richardson). Finally, the pair murders the mother and Yvonne takes her place … or so it is presented.
But in Dennis’s world, identity is slippery at best. It isn’t just that his mother and Yvonne are played by the same woman, but that following Yvonne and Bill’s first tryst, Bill “transforms” into Dennis. Later, Mrs. Wilkinson appears to turn into Yvonne, as well. It’s all disconcerting, but finally, it’s essential to the film’s success. And a success it is — though not a pleasant one.
The performances — especially those of Fiennes, Richardson and Byrne — are nothing short of brilliant. And Cronenberg’s direction wrings every ounce of atmosphere and oppressive strangeness out of the deeply disturbing story. Is it — as many are saying — his finest work? Probably not; Spider is just getting better press because its lack of fantastication and bloodletting make it seem somehow more “legitimate.” It may be Cronenberg’s most depressingly bleak film, yet it is essential viewing for all admirers of the director.
That Spider is powerful filmmaking by one of our most interesting auteurs is unquestionable. But that doesn’t mean I’d want to see it again any time soon.