Published on April 8th, 2013 | by Clint Davis
Summary: Cronenberg's character study is an effective look at schizophrenia and the lasting scars of childhood.
R | 98 mins.
Director: David Cronenberg | Screenplay: Patrick McGrath (from his novel)
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne
Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics
There are moments in David Cronenberg’s Spider that will have you wondering if you missed something a few scenes back. My advice when sitting down with this movie is to be patient and don’t be afraid to use the ‘rewind’ button when such moments occur.
Spider is quite literally a study in schizophrenia, as Ralph Fiennes’s character Dennis Cleg (aka: Spider) appears tosuffer from the affliction. Directors and authors have often tried to handle mental illness in a way that doesn’t demean or over-simplify it. I feel that in adapting his own novel, Patrick McGrath has successfully communicated this condition to his audience.
When we meet Spider, he’s obviously a broken man–living in a halfway house after his recent release from a mental institution. The duration of the film is spent between his present life and the memories of a traumatic childhood incident that was pivotal in his current situation.
Pure and simple, Spider is a character study. The cast features only five actors, two of which are minor presences, leading to a heavy work load on the principals. Luckily, Cronenberg’s three workhorses are Fiennes (Oscar winner), Miranda Richardson (Oscar nominee), and Gabriel Byrne (Golden Globe winner). It should also be noted that according to Cronenberg, neither he, Fiennes, Richardson, or the film’s producers received payment for their work on this movie. Apparently they all forfeit their salaries prior to filming so the money could be use to fund production–clearly Spider was a project of passion.
Like much of David Cronenberg’s other work (Videodrome, Scanners, Dead Ringers), I would file Spider under the category of ‘multiple viewings required’. This movie is anything but totally honest with it’s audience, the narrative plays tricks on you from start to finish–but at the end, you don’t feel cheated or frustrated. Cronenberg remains one of my favorite directors working today, as his work constantly takes chances and asks a lot of its performers. His films don’t always work but you at least know they will tell an interesting story in an original style.
Fiennes and Richardson are outstanding in two very different performances. As the title character, Fiennes plays a fractured person with a tortured soul, he is withdrawn from almost all human contact. Fiennes obviously immersed himself deeply in this role as he is so convincing you may forget he’s acting. Meanwhile, Richardson has the duty of bringing three different characters to life. She primarily portrays Spider’s kind mother, but also the nasty prostitute Yvonne, and the halfway house’s landlord/caretaker Mrs. Wilkinson. Richardson reportedly spent two hours in makeup to change characters–using that time to alter her personality as well.
Spider will not leave you panting from excitement but for viewers who get off on acting, this is a gratifying experience. You’ve got to be patient with this film as it takes a long time to develop, but builds to a satisfying climax that doesn’t insult its audience or patients of mental illness.