By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Any new film by David Cronenberg is a major event, but Spider maybe the most accomplished film in his outstanding career. It's already aserious contender for 2003's best film.
In the first amazing scene, a train grinds to a halt and the passengers pour out. They're modern, healthy folks with things to do and places to be. Certainly the last place they need to be is on this train platform.
The camera watches them as they stride on by, face after face, until the very last person timidly, tentatively steps off the train. This is Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), otherwise known as Spider.
Spider moves to a different rhythm. He has time to linger on the platform and adjust his things -- he keeps a candy tin full of various items wrapped up in an old sock stuffed down the front of his pants -- before moving on.
Spider continues to take his time, picking small, interesting items off the ground and even enduring a slight English rainfall before arriving at his destination: a kind of halfway house for mental patients deemed well enough to be able to come and go of their own free will. The house is run by Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave), whom the patients view as a tyrant, even though she merely tries to do her best.
The house also happens to be located a stone's throw from where Spider grew up, and the old neighborhood begins to spark memories for him.
He remembers himself as a shy, blonde little boy (Bradley Hall) who lives with his kindly mother (Miranda Richardson) and his drunken father (Gabriel Byrne). His father trots off every evening to the local pub, the Dog and Beggar, where he meets a vulgar blonde floozy named Yvonne who piques his interest.
The floozy's personality contrasts directly with Spider's tolerant, warm-hearted mother, and so it comes as a huge blow to Spider when his father suddenly kills his mother and invites Yvonne to move in.
I really can't go much further without giving away a few important details. It's safe to remember that these events are unfolding in Spider's memory, though, and not in reality. In the present day, squirreled away in his bleak room, Spider keeps frantic notes, written in crazy little hieroglyphics that only he can understand. He keeps smelling gas, and makes paranoid attempts to keep his room safe from unknown intruders.
In this role, Fiennes gives his greatest performance, taking a bundle of tics and nerves and making a soulful being out of him. Richardson also outdoes herself playing Spider's mother, as well as a few other nifty little scenes.
And though the acting is world class, great credit must go to Cronenberg. He has been responsible for at least six masterworks -- one of them, Dead Ringers, graces my personal ten best list of all time -- but Spider just may outclass all of them.
Using his normal team of superb artists, from his sister, costume designer Denise Cronenberg, to cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (The Empire Strikes Back) to composer Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings trilogy). With a square-shaped pastiche (Cronenberg never uses cinemascope) he paints with an almost silent film-like nerve, as if the great F.W. Murnau himself were guiding his hand.
From the opening titles -- mirrored shots of crumbling wallpaper folded over to look like insects -- to the closing moments, Spider is a masterpiece of sustained atmosphere.
Spider often occupies the frame alone, and most of his dialogue consists of unintelligible murmurings, and yet, he comes alive. Part of this miracle comes from the film's palpable ambiance -- a spooky, ageless London that probably looks about the same as it did 30 years ago.
Aside from any gimmicks or horror-type twists or murders or detective work, Spider is simply about a man embarking on a rough journey without all the right equipment. Rather than follow a straight line, he works in criss-cross patterns, much like the jigsaw puzzle he struggles with, or the broken pane of glass he keeps a shard of, or the spidery strings he stretches across his room, both as a child and as an adult.
Cronenberg is one of the few directors alive with enough patience -- or even enough desire -- to follow him.
DVD Details: David Cronenberg provides a commentary track and the disc comes with three rather chintzy little making-of featurettes.