The Canadian film-maker David Cronenberg, who is probably best recognized as the author of horrific splatter films from the 1980s like The Fly and Videodrome, claims to have patterned his latest, Spider, after the novels of Samuel Beckett. Beckett wrote mordantly funny, apocalyptic books where hopelessly lost souls chronicle their own physical and moral disintegration.
Although Spider was actually based on a story by the English novelist Patrick McGrath, the film does share Beckett’s existential wit, his loneliness, and his cruelty. The gaping wounds with which Cronenberg made his early reputation have here been sublimated, made psychic. There is no explicit gore in Spider, but its very first shot plunges us into the vortex of a gashed and bleeding mind, and we stay there for a harrowing 98 minutes.
Spider tells the story of John Cleg, a severely schizophrenic man who is prematurely released from a hospital where, we presume, he has spent his entire life. Eventually, we learn that Cleg’s mother had nicknamed him "Spider" and, within days of his arrival at the halfway house–an isolated, thoroughly depressing place located across the street from an ominous gas-works–Cleg has filled his bedroom with a spider-like web out of pieces of rope and string. He collects these items on his endless walks around the city, walks which draw him inexorably into the web of his childhood and its buried torment.
Cronenberg’s last film was the virtual reality thriller eXisTenZ, in which two characters are trapped in a horrifying world that systematically erodes the boundaries between video games and reality. Here, the everyday is just as unstable–and just as much a trap, woven of infantile traumas and schizoid fantasies. As the film progresses, we realize that the barriers between past and present have collapsed, both for Spider and for us. We share Spiders’ disorientation and mounting dread as he burrows deeper and deeper into his fractured youth.
Ralph Fiennes, fresh from his gig opposite J.Lo in the sunny romantic comedy Maid in Manhattan, plays Spider, and it is a fearless, distressing performance, built of nervous ticks and bleak, inward looks. Spider’s pain is too vast to be articulated: we see him feverishly recording his dreams and memories in a little notebook that he scrupulously hides under a corner of damp carpet in his room–but, when we see the pages of his journal, they are unreadable, rendered in a code known only to Spider. Just so, Fiennes’ line readings never surpass a choked murmur. His mumbled portrayal perfectly matches the film’s dank, oily look, conjured by Cronenberg and his long-time cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, in dark shades of industrial despair.
Spider is a minimalist film but it is not a minor one. It is probably too claustrophobic and disturbing to attract a wide audience, and even die-hard fans of David Cronenberg’s horror films may be alienated by the subtler terrors on display here. But Spider’s creepiness lingers: it is a profoundly bleak and uncompromising movie and it is sure to become a classic of psychological horror.
You can find this review on our website, at wfiu.indiana.edu. There you will also find other reviews of past and current film, theater, and opera. In the meantime, this is Jonathan Haynes, reviewing movies for WFIU.