David Cronenberg, France/Canada/UK, 2002, 98 mins
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, Lynn Redgrave, Bradley Hall
After the graphic bombast and roller coaster thrills of Cronenberg's most recent work, eXistenZ (1999), Spider finds the director withdrawing to a more austere, though no less unreal, landscape.
Adapted from the Patrick McGrath novel, Spider inhabits the bleak world of its title character (less-than-handsomely played by a toothy, muttering Ralph Fiennes): a grim and grimy London East End of the 1960s and 80s, where we see our protagonist both in childhood and as a grown man. Released from mental care into a creaking halfway house straight out of Samuel Beckett, the adult Spider returns to the scene of his early years, and also to the events of his downfall. We visit Spider as a boy (10-year-old Bradley Hall), profoundly disturbed both by the brutal murder of his mother (Miranda Richardson) at the hands of his father (Gabriel Byrne), and by her replacement by prostitute Yvonne (Richardson again). Spider is unable to cope with this situation, and is driven into insanity.
It becomes apparent, however, through Spider's twisting and threading of his own youth and manhood - he appears, albeit passively, in his own flashbacks - that reality in this film is filtered through Spider's contorted subjectivity. Spider's delightful - though horrible - hook is to situate the film inside its character's head, encouraging a riveting psychological guessing game on the part of the viewer.
Fiennes is mesmeric in the lead role, his disheveled Spider a fine balance of delicate gesture and quiet, hallucinating paranoia, the polar opposite of what might be expected from Fiennes, given his recent occupation both of the stage and of showy roles such as his serial killer in Red Dragon. Richardson, as always, is exceptional in a part that must have seemed too good to be true, and the rest of the cast, particularly in the adult Spider's world, lends a crisp shabbiness to the proceedings.
It is the visual aesthetics of the film however, which stay lodged in the mind until long after lights-up. Cronenberg forgoes his usual flourishes, which might have upset the fragile calm of much of the film, but through Peter Suschitzky's exquisite cinematography, Spider shows up the desperate superficiality of recent Hollywood journeys into 'beautiful' minds. Cronenberg has created a fascinating "psychodrama" (his own description), and though its funereal pace and downbeat ending (and middle, and beginning) may disappoint those who were enjoying the director's slow arc into the mainstream, Spider is among the director's best work.