Spider

Don't miss the chance to welcome Ralph Fiennes back to the craft of acting after playing second-fiddle psycho to Anthony Hopkins in Red Dragon and lovesick lap dog to J. Lo in Maid in Manhattan. Fiennes is at his best in Spider, rising to the challenge of a dark, demanding role.

And don't mistake Spider for Spider-Man, in which a bite from an arachnid turns a wimp into a superhero. Miracles are not in the cards for Fiennes' Dennis Cleg, the mental patient whose web-loving mum called him Spider. Dennis is fresh off the train from the funny farm, ready to take up residence at a London halfway house, where the bites come strictly from his neuroses. He's been hospitalized since the age of ten, when he saw — or thought he saw — his dad (Gabriel Byrne) murder his mum (Miranda Richardson) and then move a tart, Yvonne (also Richardson, having a high old time), into the family shack to take her place. Dennis, yessiree, has issues.

Working from a script by Patrick McGrath, who adapted his own 1990 novel, Canadian director David Cronenberg wants to get us inside Spider's head. But he doesn't make it easy. Fiennes, with his classically trained actor's voice, isn't given any explanatory dialogue or narration. Spider enters the halfway house, run by the stern Mrs. Wilkinson (a superb Lynn Redgrave), mumbling incoherently. Think you had a hard time deciphering Jackie Chan in Shanghai Knights? Just wait. Spider carries a suitcase filled with junk and a notebook that he scribbles in compulsively. Cronenberg shows us the pages; they look like hieroglyphics.

What clues there are come from flashbacks, as Spider imagines himself back in his home (the halfway house is located in the same oppressively drab East End neighborhood), where he watches his younger self, played with touching uncertainty by Bradley Hall, interact with his sainted mom and pub-crawling, whore-mongering dad. The great Polish cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (The Empire Strikes Back) does the impossible by seeming to light the landscape of Spider's mind as he returns to the trauma that changed his life.

The gore that typifies many Cronenberg psychodramas — the exploding heads in Scanners, the squishing and squashing in The Fly, the gynecological horrors of Dead Ringers — is largely absent in Spider. It's the atmosphere of dread and erotic anxiety that exerts a hypnotic grip. Young Spider's terror of his mother's sexuality is the core of the film. It's the reason that Richardson — triumphantly sexy, scary and funny — morphs into all the major female roles. She is madonna, whore and even Spider's jailer.

As a haunting evocation of anguish, Spider owes less to horror films than to the works of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett (Fiennes could be Beckett's double here in hair, walk and posture). Of course, this would all be jerk-off intellectualism in a less-gifted filmmaker. What catches us in Spider's web — besides the indelible performances of Fiennes and Richardson — is the director's sympathy with this freak man-child who struggles to order his confused memories into a kind of truth. That's what makes Cronenberg a world-class provocateur: His movie gets under your skin.

From The Archives Issue 918: March 20, 2003