Film Review: Spider
Canadian horror auteur David Cronenberg has, since breakthrough film Shivers, been an artist whose work is to be savoured and pored over. He does not make lightweight entertainment and gory schlock; he makes complex nightmares of horror films, from the disgusting parasites of his breakthrough to the body horror shocks of Videodrome to the paranoid psychosis of Dead Ringers, and could easily be described as one of the most consistent directors from the late seventies to the early nineties.
Then, with 1991’s baffling Naked Lunch, Cronenberg and his films changed tack, and horror was largely gone. Apart from 1996’s brilliantly icy Crash, so was the high standard of quality. 1993’s M. Butterfly was critically reviled, while his last film of the 90’s, eXistenZ, had some interesting ideas, but was ultimately a flawed concept, and a below average film. In 2002’s Spider, his first film post millennium, he does not make a return to the horror of his early works; however, a new form of horror is present in Spider, the darkest and utterly bleakest film Cronenberg has made to date.
The film opens with Dennis “Spider” Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) returning from a long stay in an asylum. Cleg is heavily traumatised; he has very few lines of actual dialogue, and a lot of mumbling and distant stares. He is taking shelter in a halfway house for the mentally disturbed, and while there, pieces together the puzzle of his life leading up to his incarceration. From there, the film is a complex enigma code in which we float in and out of the past, with Spider watching his younger self, and dark, twisted events occur, some of which may be real, some of which may be all in Spider’s head.
The first thing to say in a film as difficult to describe as Spider is that the acting is superb. Fiennes, in a difficult and deliberately obtuse role, gives one of the most underrated performances of the decade; a restrained and intriguing cryptic puzzle of a performance that gives no clues and doesn’t care if the audience doesn’t understand. In the flashbacks, Spider’s parents, who may hold the key to Spider’s imprisonment, are played by Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson.
While Byrne is riddled with a terrible accent, he gives a performance of equal measures sleaze, menace and bitterness. His scenes in smoky, dirty pubs are fitfully grimy, and give the film a real harsh edge. Richardson is similarly excellent in dual roles; first, as Spider’s mother, all regretful eyes as she observes her husband’s philandering ways and abusive dinner behaviour, and then as her husband’s new “tart”, a horribly unsubtle woman who is in her few scenes genuinely unpleasant. These performances are the crux of the film, and act as the main story while Spider wanders around modern London.
Sadly, the film can be described as ‘flawed at best’. Any film about a man who doesn’t speak is going to be an uphill struggle for the audience, and the glacial speed of Spider can put off a viewer after twenty minutes of murmuring. Spider also loses its way as it goes along; as the film spirals more and more into the past, any sense of narrative structure flies out the window, and it is genuinely confusing right until the end. It is certainly an interesting film, one that tells a difficult story in a stylish way, and is certainly the best Cronenberg since Crash, but be warned: Spider is a puzzle, and it takes a sharp viewer to unlock its secrets.
By Harry Ford