This is one of those movies that reminds us how the combination of great story telling, brilliant acting and wonderful cinematography (along with a poignant and relevant music score) can make the difference between a mediocre yawn and an engrossing experience. Spider was directed by David Cronenberg (one of my all-time favorites) and adapted from Patrick McGrath's novel (who also wrote the screenplay).
Spider is a psychological thriller about a broken, schizophrenic man called Dennis Cleg (nicknamed Spider since childhood), who has been prematurely released from an asylum and is directed to move into a halfway house in London in the 1970's.
Played by the awesome Ralph Fiennes, Spider draws you into his story (which could be hard-going for those with a short attention span) where he vacillates between reality and fantasy as he unravels his past. This is a film that requires full attention, as a variety of different points of view are presented, along with the juxtaposition of characters - such as his mother being superimposed on Yvonne, the prostitute from the pub (who he assumed - as a child - had an affair with his father) and Mrs. Wilkinson, the woman who runs the halfway house.
Spider's mother, Yvonne and Mrs Wilkinson are played by the multi-talented Miranda Richardson. (The real Mrs Wilkinson is played by the brilliant Lynn Redgrave - who is gruff, stiff and frightening to Spider.) I've always adored Miranda Richardson - from her stint in Blackadder to her lovely performance in The Hours. She is simply mesmerizing - as all 3 characters - to the point of nearly disappearing in their personalities. I had to keep reminding myself that it was her juxtaposed - rather than different actresses - that's how awesome her performance is.
When Spider arrives at the halfway house, he is brought upstairs to take a bath, where a tub full of rusty water awaits him. We see how internalized and closed in Spider truly is - as he mutters to himself and barely registers when spoken to. The scene with Spider huddled in the tub like a frightened, lost child is devastating in portraying his level of mental isolation.
Spider keeps a tiny journal where he writes his indecipherable gibberish (although we assume he understands it all too well) with a tiny pencil. He stashes it under the carpet in order to hide his secrets - which are slowly but surely revealed in flashbacks (with the adult Spider shadowing his younger self - in the gloomy, industrial part of London in the 1950's).
Spider meets another resident at the halfway house (Terrence - played by the wonderful John Neville) who does his best to befriend the silent Spider, telling him a variety of stories indirectly related to their shared predicament. The scene where he defends Spider, who has been admonished by the ever-watchful Mrs Wilkinson for wearing multiple shirts, is beautifully done. He tells her that "clothes maketh the man...the less there is of the man, the more the need of the clothes.”
As Spider revisits the haunts of his childhood, we see him mesmerized by the gasworks across the street, sitting on park benches along the side of the canal, loitering in the alleyways and the lot where his father used to grow their veggies. As the story unfolds, we realize that Spider is reliving his childhood - in particular, a time where his love for his mother is distorted by his childish idealizing of her and his anger at his father and Yvonne for apparently killing her off.
His memories of what occurred are blurred and patched together with scenes from his time in the mental institution, where - in one scene - we see him staring at a pinup of a naked woman. As he focuses on the photo, we see his conflation of his mother and Yvonne - suggesting an Oedipal attachment.
There are some light moments - in particular a scene where his fellow patients share a laugh during a break in their work. These secondary characters have stories of their own - which are never revealed but subtly hinted at. (Cronenberg's superb direction and deep understanding of human nature make the movie a thought-provoking psychological study.)
As Spider's memories lead him into a downward spiral, we get the sense that his world will collapse at any moment - as truth weaves in and out of his fruitless attempts to keep his story hidden - from himself and we assume - the rest of the world. It's only when he is looming over Mrs Wilkinson - intending to kill her (believing that she is really Yvonne in disguise) when she snaps him out of it by asking, "What have you done Mr. Cleg?"
This scene is interspersed with the memory of him killing Yvonne - by gassing her via the intricate system he creates using his beloved string - which is also used to create the web in his room. It's only when we see his father (played by the awesome Gabriel Byrne) dragging his dead mother out of the house - where we see Spider coming full circle. He is finally facing the truth.
His web of lies and false memories are torn down - but there's no catharsis or revelation for Spider. It's back to the asylum where we assume he will spend the rest of his life.
The young Spider is played by Bradley Hall - who gives a sweet and intelligent performance for one so young. His restrained anger at his father, loathing for Yvonne and deep love for his mother are perfectly played.
Ralph Fiennes gives one of his greatest performances in this movie. Here we see his room at the halfway house - decorated with his web of string - which seems to be for protection as well as containment of his scattered memories. We also wonder if Spider will end up tangled in his own creation.
Lynn Redgrave as the no-nonsense landlady. Wonderfully cold and practical. She is not mean but she is strict and stoic. It's interesting to note that her room is quaint and very feminine - in contrast with the stark coldness of the rest of the house.
Spider's room at the halfway house is utilitarian and stark. It's indicative of the harsh world he finds himself in - echoing his isolation yet providing a blank canvas for his story to unfold.
Spider's father and Yvonne - in a scene where he explains he has come to fix her "pipes". Miranda Richardson and Gabriel Byrne are wonderful together. I was particularly impressed with their ability to stay in character - as well as shift and change according to Spider's memory of them. Brilliantly acted!
Beautiful performances from both John Neville and Ralph Fiennes. Their flimsy solidarity is constantly tested by Mrs Wilkinson's interruptions and scolding.
Adult Spider relives his tender moments with his mother as a child. I loved the way the adult Spider lurks in the background, as he watches his memories come to life from a safe distance.
Spider is one of David Cronenberg's finest films - in my opinion. It's a story that forces us to ruminate over events and how we either gloss over or totally deconstruct them - then reconstruct them in order to satisfy our desire to make things right. Also - the emerging fear of sexuality, mixed in with his adoration for his mother, serves to create a story about a boy's arrested development and the inevitable descent into madness.
The movie was released in 2002 and has won several awards - including awards for the actors - all well deserved. With issues during production - such as lack of funding - it's amazing the movie was made at all. The director, the producer and the actors chose not to receive any payment in order to get the under-funded movie made - which is a sacrifice we should all be grateful for.
Even if you prefer action, romance, horror etc. - this movie will not disappoint - unless you don't have patience for the unfolding of a complex story or appreciation for fine film-making and acting. I give it Five Stars!