Any new entry into director David Cronenberg’s filmography sparks immense interest amongst both the industry and audiences, and Spider, the Canadian’s latest effort, is a tremendous psychological study of one man’s descent into madness.
Adapted by Patrick McGrath and Cronenberg based on his McGrath’s own novel, Spider seems to exist in its own sense of time and space, and hazily follows its protagonist Dennis ‘Spider’ Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) through a series of disjointed flashbacks, delusions and nightmares. We follow Spider’s childhood memories, which saw his plumber father (Gabriel Byrne) take for granted his housewife mother (Miranda Richardson) and ultimately cheat on her. When his mother finds out, the father murders her which Spider witnesses, and this sparks many unresolved mental issues that Spider attempts to resolve in his adulthood.
Spider sees David Cronenberg as a hired gun as opposed to many of his previous films, and he demonstrates with a strong assuredness that he can handle other people’s material. Spider is a careful, thoughtful but razor-sharp insight into a fractured mind, presented with control and cohesion. It’s deliberately uninvolving and slow paced at first, and no doubt many will be slightly repelled by this unwelcoming first act, but it eventually draws the audience in, and upon its conclusion the pacing issues have been quickly forgotten.
The similarities between Spider and Hitchcock’s Psycho are obvious, with both protagonists exhibiting a splintered Oedipus complex and severe delusional behaviour. If anything, Spider differs from Psycho in its efforts to suggest how the abnormal behaviour was caused in the first place, and it’s the gradual shading of the grey area between the black and white that makes the film all the more riveting.
The film’s main drawback could lie in its semi-twist ending, that is either too easy to spot or too obviously choreographed by Cronenberg. Essentially however, this doesn’t actually matter much to the film’s impact, due to the fact that the film hinges upon the successful completion of the audience’s journey of awareness as opposed to depending on dramatic shock tactics.
Performances are first rate, with Fieness completely losing his celebrity persona into ‘Spider’, a mumbling, brooding child trapped in a volatile adult. Although Gabriel Byrne provides strong support, it’s Miranda Richardson who deserves the most praise with her ever-changing portrayal of Spider’s mother. She shifts character effortlessly, and clearly deserves an Oscar nomination, which will probably go unsatisfied.
Andrew Sanders’ excellent post-war London production values, combined with Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography, generates a carefree abandonment of time, period and natural flow, as if the film is drawing smoothly on many different timeframes and creating its own unique timeline. This greatly helps the film’s dramatic impact, and corroborates the inner madness of Spider himself, almost plagued by his childhood and past memories.
Whilst the film will certainly prove to be slow and ponderous for some, it will also be very fruitful for others who allow themselves to be caught up in Cronenberg’s distinct web. Spider is an understated gem of a film that deserves recognition, if purely for carrying on the Cronenberg brand of quality.