David Cronenberg’s latest film “Spider” is the kind of film that begs for repeated viewings and endless discussions on its thematic elements and its tangled, yet exquisitely structured plot. Cronenberg, the Canadian director who gave us exploding heads in “Scanners” and one-upped “The Matrix” with the inside-the-video-game thriller “eXistenZ,” might seem an odd choice to adapt Patrick McGrath’s 1990 novel for the big screen, but within the first few minutes of the brilliant film it becomes abundantly clear he is the perfect maestro to direct the twisted tale of schizophrenia.

Todd Weiser
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

“Spider” is the story of Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), a schizophrenic man who has just been released from a mental hospital. He walks slowly and with a slouch, mumbling his way toward a London halfway house for people in his condition. Dennis, or Spider, as his mother nicknamed him as a boy, is disheveled to say the least – wearing four layers of collared shirts, a pair of mucky jackets and carrying a briefcase that looks as if it had been hiding in the corner of a flea market for decades.

As fate would have it, his halfway house is located in his old childhood neighborhood and Dennis begins piecing together moments of his past. In a flashback we see Dennis as a young boy living with his bar-hopping father (Gabriel Byrne) and mild-mannered mother (Miranda Richardson). Cronenberg films the surroundings with a sense of overwhelming claustrophobia that sets the tone for his protagonist. Cronenberg unfolds the story of Dennis’ childhood from two vantage points – one from Dennis the boy and the other from Dennis the man. The talented director delicately navigates between the past and the present to reveal what becomes a schizophrenic web of adultery and murder.

Fiennes is in top form as the paranoid schizophrenic, effortlessly slipping into the role that demands little in terms of dialogue (he barely utters a complete sentence throughout the film), but insists on the slightest of physical nuances and stringent facial expressions. Fiennes skillfully delves inside the troubled mind of his character as if he was a great silent film star, and the end result is his best performance since “Schindler’s List.”

Clocking in at 98 minutes, “Spider” moves at a sluggish, but meticulous pace that plays perfectly to Cronenberg’s grand design. He sets up his scenes cautiously and lets them saturate into the storyline before he moves on. It all builds up to a stunning crescendo in the final minutes of the film that forces viewers to re-evaluate everything they have just seen.

“Spider” is arguably Cronenberg’s most accomplished and beautiful film to date. Not since 1988’s “Dead Ringers” has the director crafted a dramatic film so wonderfully structured and realized. He owes much of the success of the film to his star Fiennes and screenwriter McGrath, but, in the end, “Spider” is indubitably a David Cronenberg film.

4 1/2 Stars

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