DIRECTED BY: David Cronenberg
PLOT: A disturbed man is released from a mental institution and sent to live in a halfway
house. While there, he traces back to his childhood to remember a troubled past and the tragic events that shaped his current mental instability.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: To compile a list of the weirdest movies ever made, one would be hard-pressed not to include Cronenberg’s entire oeuvre. Here, the director eschews the “body horror” that encompassed much of his earlier films and focuses solely on the deterioration of the mind. While this can be just as grotesque as horrors of the flesh, the journey can get so convoluted at times that the weirdness teeters on a fulcrum. Eventually, the confusion weighs too heavy and topples the weirdness into mere befuddlement.
COMMENTS: A cinematic pet peeve of mine was surely tested with this movie. Being American, I shouldn’t have to struggle listening to an English film (i.e., UK-Great Britain). We speak the same tongue, albeit with some slight variances in words and phrases. The cockney accents in this film can get so thick at times I considered reaching for the subtitle button on the remote. To make matters worse, the film focuses on the character of Spider (Fiennes) who mumbles and spews gibberish as a means of communication. Actually, most of his conversations are only with himself. I loathe having to toggle the volume levels up and down. I had to do this for the duration of the film. Aside from this aggravation, Spider is not a bad film; nor is it a great one.
I loved the approach taken in the opening credits. Various textiles and walls are displayed artistically with corrosion and chipped paint, each frame containing a pattern or form that is open to interpretation. It is set up to resemble Rorschach inkblot tests used in the psychiatric field (I must be going mad myself because all I see in them are cool looking demons). These opening credits are effective because they prepare the viewer for a movie that deals with an imbalanced mind. What we perceive to be truth is certainly going to be skewed from the perspective of a protagonist with warped sensibilities.
Spider enters the picture slowly, exiting a train and returning onto the streets of London. Gone are the confines of the mental institution that trapped him for so many years; but that cage must have also been his safe and secure haven. Now he is obviously uncomfortable and unsure of his surroundings. The release from the asylum was probably against his will, or in the very least, premature. The halfway house Spider ventures to next may be a slight step up from his previous residence, but that’s debatable. It’s full of loonies and a Nurse Ratchet-like overseer. At least the other lunatics seem somewhat cordial next to Spider. He remains nearly mute, and when he does speak it’s in the indecipherable mumblings. Usually, he sits hunched over, wrapped up in his four shirts and fractured memories of childhood.
When left alone in his room he scribbles in a journal he keeps hidden under a rug. Spider’s schizophrenia is apparent, and the more we watch his body language and behavior, his obsessive compulsive disorder becomes more evident. The layers of clothing; the disgusting yellowed fingers from chain smoking; the puzzles he pieces together; the crazy handwriting scrawled in his journal (completely unreadable to anyone but himself): all of this indicates a man unhinged, but methodical enough to keep some kind of familiar coherence to hold his frayed existence together.
Spider’s journal contains random thoughts that come rushing back to him concerning his childhood. The memories play out on screen while the adult Spider lurks somewhere in the background; a strange sight to see, if only because many us have yearned at some point to have this “ghost of Christmas past” capability. He peers through kitchen windows or sulks in corners of the room. All the while he recites word-for-word each thing his mother (Richardson) said, and his own 10-year-old reply. For this purpose his memory serves him well and does not yet seem distorted. There is an obvious admiration for his mother seen, both in the adult and adolescent Spider. Kudos to the casting of the young child actor (Bradley Hall), as the adult and child’s eyes look eerily similar. Whenever the father (Byrne) enters the room, fear overcomes the child, and the adult Spider can be seen backing away from him.
Without giving away too much meat of the story, what unravels in flashbacks is a supposed affair between his plumber father and a floozy at the local pub. After the sordid affair is discovered by Spider’s mother, the father kills and buries her. Oddly, Spider’s father never acknowledges her disappearance and fully carries on his life with the drunken bimbo. When young Spider finally accuses his father of murder, the father becomes enraged and insists the boy is daft and his mother is just fine.
Herein lies the problem with the film and the subject matter of schizophrenia. The viewer is almost constantly unclear of what is reality and what is imagined. In this psychologically complex film, entire events go unanswered. Characters become other characters. At one point Spider himself asks, “Who are you”? Richardson deftly assumes three different roles on her own. Are Spider’s accusations of betrayal and eventual murder directed towards his father justified? The enigmatic reveal at the end of the film makes it seem the father is innocent of those claims. Yet, because we are dealing with a cracked psyche, we are never certain what really happened.
All of the performances are convincing turns and realistic portrayals. Even with Fiennes’ sometimes hard to follow yammerings, he does a fine job. This is essentially a twisted character study, and Fiennes pulls it off admirably on appearance and body language alone. As always, Cronengerg’s eye is keen. The dingy set designs and dreary atmosphere are what appealed to me the most. One of the most shocking aspect is the lack of violence and gore usually found in Cronenberg movies. Only one scene of blood, and it is minuscule at best! I’ll sum it up this way… is Spider weird? Yes. Are there better movies covering the subject of schizophrenia which are weirder, yet more centered and coherent? Absolutely. Spider weaves a tangled web that ultimately becomes impenetrable, but the intricacy of webs always elicits fascination.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“More poetic than clinical in its approach to schizophrenia, suffused with existential dread, this evocation of psychological torment is both sensationally grim and exquisitely realized. This case history is rigorously hallucinated—a vision of ecstatic, lysergic shabbiness that can find a terrible, formal beauty in its protagonist’s haggard posture or the wretched stains on a flophouse wall.”–J. Hoberman, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)