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Spider

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
Spider
from Film Forum, 03/20/03

Unlike Willard, Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) was a young boy who adored his mother (Miranda Richardson). As he thinks back on his troubling childhood, overshadowed by the temper of his alcoholic father (Gabriel Byrne), he sinks into psychological distress. The audience is challenged to piece together what really happened in his childhood, and why every woman he encounters seems to wear his mother's face. While Willard is a comic tale of alienation and revenge, Spider (Sony Pictures Classics) is a disturbing exploration of mental illness, and how one boy became lost in a web of disorienting memories.

Spider's director is a professional at portraying psychological turmoil: David Cronenberg, the man at the helm of such twisted thrillers as Dead Ringers, Crash, and Existenz, has here taken Patrick McGrath's 1990 novel and filmed a fascinating journey through the present, the past, and alternate versions of the past warped by Dennis's confusion. The audience is challenged to separate true scenes from false ones. In the film, Dennis has just been released from an asylum—he is half mad, living in a home for struggling mental patients. In this dark, dank, mildew-colored shambles, he wrestles with painful memories in solitude.

It is not hard to see why Cronenberg cast Ralph Fiennes in the lead role: Fiennes has a prominent forehead that looks like it weighs a ton, swollen with angst and confusion. The rest of the cast is brilliant as well: Byrne refuses to exaggerate his turn as a thick-headed drunkard, while Richardson revels in the opportunity to play the broken mother figure and the vicious mistress. John Neville, who made such a perfect Baron Munchausen for director Terry Gilliam, brings much-needed humor to these otherwise morbid scenes.

Unfortunately, the film's slow, toilsome path does not lead to any particularly shocking or interesting revelations. As the pieces finally begin to form a clear picture, the picture is disappointingly unspectacular. As a meditation on the fragility of a child's mind, Spider resonates with truth. But as a mystery, it's a lot of unpleasant work for the viewer, and offers a conclusion that will make you say, "Whatever."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) disagrees. He says the movie "is not exactly a feel-good picture, but it is a fantastic drama that grips you in its interlocking narrative and doesn't let go. I highly recommend it." He elaborates: "The masterstroke of Cronenberg's film is putting the audience in Spider's head. We begin to understand how he came to be the way he is, but we're also forced to acknowledge that what we're seeing is highly subjective. Cronenberg deserves a tremendous amount of praise. His direction is pitch-perfect. Kudos are also in store for Peter Suschitzky's striking cinematography, Howard Shore's haunting score, and Andrew Sander's barren production design."

Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) says Spider "is not the sort of well-made film one views for escapist pleasure. Its slow tempo teeters on the tiresome, giving the high-minded narrative a meandering quality. Yet it is appreciably better than most movies made about mentally ill characters because it feels authentic as its grim, barren world reflects a frail, troubled mind."

Steve Parish (The Film Forum) calls it "a clever if unexciting tale of mental illness. [Fiennes gives] a great performance, but it's too difficult a film to get him near any awards—as Cronenberg says, it's like Samuel Becket confronting Sigmund Freud."

For mainstream press reviews of Spider, click here.


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