a review by Jeffrey Overstreet
Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) was once a young boy who adored his mother (Miranda Richardson).
Now, a mentally deranged vagrant in search of a home, peace of mind, and sanity, he thinks back on his troubling childhood. While most children played games and made friends, he sat alone in a dingy apartment with only his mother for company. His days were darkened by the shadow and the temper of his alcoholic father (Gabriel Byrne), who gave him the first push towards psychological distress.
Spider is as grim as any film so far this year, and as we watch Dennis sort through these harsh chapters of his life, we are challenged to piece together what really happened in that childhood, and why every woman Dennis encounters seems to wear his mother’s face.
Spider‘s director is a professional at portraying psychological turmoil: David Cronenberg, the man at the helm of such twisted thrillers as Dead Ringers, Crash, and Existenz, has here taken Patrick McGrath’s 1990 novel and filmed a fascinating journey through the present, the past, and alternate versions of the past warped by Dennis’s confusion. The audience is challenged to separate true scenes from false ones. In the film, Dennis has just been released from an asylum—he is half mad, living in a home for struggling mental patients. In this dark, dank, mildew-colored shambles, he wrestles with painful memories in solitude.
It is not hard to see why Cronenberg cast Ralph Fiennes in the lead role: Fiennes has a prominent forehead that looks like it weighs a ton, swollen with angst and confusion. The rest of the cast is brilliant as well: Byrne refuses to exaggerate his turn as a thick-headed drunkard, while Richardson revels in the opportunity to play the broken mother figure and the vicious mistress. John Neville, who made such a perfect Baron Munchausen for director Terry Gilliam, brings much-needed humor to these otherwise morbid scenes.
Unfortunately, the film’s slow, toilsome journey does not lead to any particularly shocking or interesting revelations. As the pieces finally begin to form a clear picture, the picture is disappointingly unspectacular. As a meditation on the fragility of a child’s mind, Spider resonates with truth. But as a mystery, it’s a lot of unpleasant work for the viewer, and offers a conclusion that will make you say, “Whatever.”
Director – David Cronenberg
Writer – Patrick McGrath, based on his novel
Director of photography – Peter Suschitzky
Editor – Ronald Sanders
Music – Howard Shore
Production designer – Andrew Sanders
Producers – David Cronenberg, Samuel Hadida and Catherine Bailey
Sony Pictures Classics. 98 minutes. Rated R.
STARRING: Ralph Fiennes (Dennis Cleg), Miranda Richardson (Mrs. Cleg), Gabriel Byrne (Bill Cleg), Lynn Redgrave (Mrs. Wilkinson), John Neville (Terrence), Gary Reineke (Freddy) and Bradley Hall (Dennis as a boy).