In case you weren’t already anticipating David Cronenberg’s usual creepiness, the Columbia DVD of Spider makes clear right off that this is a disturbing venture. Rather than give up a menu page accompanied by music, even moody music, the soundtrack for your introduction to the experience that lies ahead consists of Spider’s (Ralph Fiennes) mumbling and moaning and scratching on his notebook, with faint womanly murmurs and an unsettlingly shimmery instrumental effect.
This uncanny effect is entirely appropriate for a film that takes you deep inside Spider’s head, where it’s dim and shadowy, and weirdly fragile, like what you’re looking at might crumble away at any moment. At the same time, the dreariness feels strangely sturdy, like there’s no way out of it. And so, you tend to peer, with and at Dennis Clegg, nicknamed Spider as he shuffles, mumbles, and tries his best not to engage anyone’s gaze.
The most obvious explanation for this odd behavior is that Spider is schizophrenic. He first comes into view in Spider as he’s released from a mental institution to a London halfway house. He gets off the train (in a scene that Cronenberg, on the DVD commentary track, likens to the Lumière brothers’ “The Arrival of a Train at the Station” ,” also noting that this is his film’s only use of a steadicam), and makes his way through rainy streets to Mrs. Wilkinson’s (Lynne Redgrave), where the narrow hallways and grim sitting room reflect his gloomy sensibility (superbly rendered by the work of cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and production designer Andrew Sanders). Here he meets Terrence (John Neville), a chatty veteran of African expeditions and longtime resident who harbors no illusions that he’ll ever move beyond this way station to “real life.” Spider doesn’t say much.
When Mrs. Wilkinson attempts to help him off with his several layers of clothing (including some four shirts and an overcoat), he pulls back quickly, not so much alarmed at her touch as wholly distrustful of any human contact. The film, rather insidiously, makes it easy to sympathize with Spider’s fearfulness. For one thing, the bath that Mrs. Wilkinson has drawn for him is rusty brown. But then you see that such material details don’t aren’t really the issue for Spider: in the next shot, Spider has removed his own clothing, and has settled into the tub, his thin limbs submerged, curled into the murk.
This sort of image typically presages a flashback to Spider’s 1950s-ish childhood (in which he is played by Bradley Hall). The film, adapted by Patrick McGrath from his own novel, is full of such shifts in time. But, unlike in most films that deploy such a structure, these change-ups never mark adjustments of perspective. Rather, as Cronenberg notes in his commentary, the film maintains Spider’s point of view, and in so doing, becomes an “expressionist” work more than anything approximating “realism.” The filmmakers had no inclination to document or describe clinical madness, but rather, to suggest a man’s sense of internal darkness and disorder. It keeps Spider’s “pace” and “rhythms, which are slow and deliberate and confused.”
Given his current “condition,” Spider is not exactly a wiser or even a more experienced man looking back or reassessing. Rather, he is quite unable to assemble his memories into any sort of logical order. And so, he incessantly relives his early traumas, without much distance from them. The ensuing emotional murk—imaged by the bathwater—seems to slow the film’s pace and the character’s developing (or decelerating) self-understanding. And since you’re immersed in Spider’s version of events, you’re mostly left to his resources, or lack of same.
Most of Spider’s memories have to do with his parents, Bill (Gabriel Byrne) and the unnamed Mrs. (Miranda Richardson). For the most part, they share silent or otherwise tension-filled dinners. A plumber, Bill is bored with his simple life, poverty, and practical-minded wife. He also ritually heads off to the local pub to nurse his self-absorption. Mum, meanwhile, is nervous, attempting to assuage the rage she knows is coming and protect her sweet, pale, reticent son from his father’s irrational and truly frightening outbursts.
The first of these scenes begins as the adult Spider wanders from the halfway house to the Cleggs’ kitchen window, into which he stares most intently; it’s a nifty transition, a sort of sliding of consciousness, and the rest of the film’s movements between moments echo the technique, so that the adult Spider will, for instance, find himself sitting at the bar in the pub down the road from his old home, watching his timid, right-seeming mum attempt to drink, that is, keep up with, her brutish, drunken husband. Spider’s face disintegrates as he watches his dad lurch from the table toward the back room, where a group of tarts with bad teeth grin and rearrange their cleavages.
Within this oppressively Oedipal dynamic (which recalls several of Cronenberg’s other movies), dad must go down. Or at least this appears to be the case. The film’s most intriguing aspect is its persistent and unresolved teetering between what passes for reality and what passes for Spider’s mind, that deeply disturbing place without discernable boundaries. As the visual movement across times and places is increasingly fluid, a similar lack of clarity overtakes Spider’s story.
It’s not long before Yvonne, the most aggressive (and, no small thing amid these frightening vaginas, the most gnarly-toothed) of the prostitutes is also being played by Richardson. (By film’s end, she’s playing Mrs. Wilkinson as well, further underlining Spider’s capacity for conflating the women in his life.) And so, she’s looking more and more like Spider’s increasingly bereft mother. Spider dislikes the slatternly Yvonne, a response exacerbated when he imagines his father’s visit to her apartment to work on her “pipes.” Here, as the film’s interiors become increasingly muted and depressed, characters’ behaviors are increasingly extreme: Bill and Yvonne begin having sex in the street and carousing. The noise and stumbling about terrify the child, who watches them come and go from his bedroom window.
The adult Spider keeps track of these and other goings-on by scribbling furiously in his grimy notebook, often in his room at Mrs. Wilkinson’s (which Cronenberg calls “the skull of Spider”), filling the pages with cramped and smudgy hieroglyphs. Cronenberg says that he “identifies” with Spider as an artist, as a writer. But as Spider’s jottings are indecipherable, they serve as a means to keep memories to and for himself, and perhaps even to create an order, not to communicate with anyone else. This limits the communicative effects of his “art,” surely. At the same time, his art seems nearly causal. There is no escaping its ravages, its creation of dread and deceit for this pathetic, ever-struggling ever-boy. (Cronenberg decided not to grant the audience access to the articulate Spider in a voiceover, instead offering the visual image of his writing, in a kind of cuneiform, a hieroglyphics.”)
And, if the writing—scratching and hatching, really—is not enough to make you feel confined within Spider’s mind, the film provides yet another metaphor made literal, in the webs that he fashions of string and nails he collects off the street. Crossing his ceiling at Mrs. Wilkinson’s, these elaborate creations look at once protective (a rickety sort of “safety net”) and threatening, an emblem of the crossed emotional wires that entangle and consume him. It’s a striking illustration of Spider’s desperate flailing about, baleful and precise.
Such imagery surely inspires a desire to know its history. And the DVD includes three featurettes, all unnecessarily accompanied by a melancholy-to-ooky soundtrack and all more or less repeating what Cronenberg says in his assured and compelling commentary. In the Beginning: How Spider Came to Be is your basic road-to-production tale, as told by Cronenberg (shot so web-like shadows waft on the wall behind him), writer McGrath, and producer Catherine Bailey, as well as Richardson for about a minute. No surprise, the film was “difficult to finance,” as Cronenberg puts it, to the point that all the principals deferred their salaries. Similarly, Caught in the Spider’s Web: The Cast focuses on choices and effects of the performers, including young Bradley Hall; Cronenberg notes in particular that Fiennes, who was attached to the project for several years before the director came on, had to “set down some of the weapons that he has, in this case his voice and his use of language.”
Weaving the Web: The Making of Spider has the filmmakers discussing conception, composition, and Cronenberg’s genius. The director notes of the first steadicam shot at the train station, there’s Spider, he observes of the first shot in the train station, “out of the flow.” He says that the rest of the film—in which Spider appears quite alone, in streets or cafés—was “not intentional.” In fact, he says, they had extras in period dress and period cars at the ready, but he kept taking them out of shots until Spider was on his own. He says the omission of the word “schizophrenia” or any overt diagnosis in the film was, of course, deliberate. “I wanted viewers to become Spider by the end of the movie,” he says. “I wanted them to be him.”
This being a Cronenberg movie, the source of Spider’s anxiety is related to women, sex, and violence. The filmmaker is renowned for his displays of Freudian horrors—especially dismembered, gaping, and wounded women—as emblems for the monsters lurking beneath the surfaces of familial monotony and so-called normality. And to an extent, Spider is another version of the same movie he’s been making for years. But it’s also different, more nuanced and so, more alarming. This refinement is partly a function of the film’s deliberate delicacy of imagery and performances, from Fiennes’ singular focus to Richardson’s subtle multiplicity.
Even more impressively, the movie works and reworks the Oedipal business, less as a given than a myth with extremely troubling origins and consequences. For viewers who are (culturally or otherwise) disinvested in this myth, or those who just plain tired of seeing women punished for it, this turn is more than welcome. Rather than going through the same motions, again, Spider internalizes and examines the devastation of the fiction for all involved in it.