Nothing is what it seems in David Cronenberg's latest film about psychosis and the degradation of the human mind. The
film explores the mental state of Dennis 'Spider' Cleg, how he holds on to his memories, and how those memories become
mixed with reality. It pushes the viewer to discern between what is tangible and what is illusion, between past and
present, between sanity and madness. In doing so, however, it fails to connect with its audience and concludes in a
contradictory and jumbled fashion.
The film toggles between the 1960's and the 1980's. In East End London, a train arrives and Dennis 'Spider' Cleg is the
last one off. He stumbles out of the passenger car as if in a stupor. Picking up souvenirs off the ground, he shuffles
his way to a halfway house. There, the landlady, Mrs. Wilkinson, welcomes him. She escorts him to his room only to leave
promptly without saying but a few words. Ironically, he receives more attention from another patron named Terrence, who
has little hope of integrating back in society. Despite the fact that Spider cannot form words to communicate back,
Terrence considers him a sort of kindred spirit.
As Spider settles into his new room, he is meticulous about finding a place for his journal. The journal contains his
childhood memories and is written in what appears to be a different language. With no supervision from Mrs. Wilkinson, he
avoids taking his medication and periodically leaves the rehab facility. Occasionally, he stumbles upon old childhood
haunts and frequently relives moments from his torturous past.
He reminisces about his father and mother, in particular, how his father went about murdering his mother and
replacing her with a prostitute. Patronizing the local pubs after work, Billy Cleg welcomes the advances of
Yvonne, a rambunctious call girl, and the two have an affair. At a garden shed rendezvous, Billy and Yvonne
are discovered by Mrs. Cleg. Subsequently, she is brutally murdered and buried in the garden. Upon her return
to the house, Yvonne boldly tells a young Dennis that his suspicions are correct and that they did, in fact,
murder his mother.
With his mother out of the way, Spider fears the worst. Thinking that he may be next, he devises a horrific plan, one that
involves a spider web of sorts and a gas stove. But to his dismay, his plan backfires and the consequences turn out much
different than he had hoped. In the end, he is sent to a mental ward where many years later, is released to the halfway
Back to the present, Spider's recollections begin to toy with him. He begins to see the same woman in all of the female
roles, including his perceived reality. Mrs. Clegg, Yvonne, and Mrs. Wilkinson all are the same person. Which is real and
which is the dream? Will Spider ever become rehabilitated? What ever became of his father and mother? So many unanswered
questions are left for interpretation.
But ambiguity is not what makes "Spider" flawed. The most significant problem it struggles with is that it
creates a story through the eyes of a mental patient. This, by itself, makes the film null and void because
everything that you see is coming from an unreliable source. Spider's present life and his past memories are
highly distorted and there is no clarity. Even towards the end, when Spider begins to mix personalities, it is
nearly impossible to tell what is real and who is real. Because of this, one cannot feel compassion towards
him. You are closed off to his emotions.
Ralph Fiennes fought for the opportunity to do this role and his performance is adequate, but far from noteworthy.
His character maintains one singular expression, one monotone mumble, and no spirit. There is no life in this
character and there is no life in the story. Spider carries the weight of a tarnished childhood on his shoulders
without a glimpse of joy. And you almost feel that he will never be able to escape his inner demons. On the other
hand, Miranda Richardson's characters are elaborate. At different times, she portrays all three female leads, and
adds a complexity similar to that of the women in "The Hours." Mrs. Clegg is depressed and reserved, Yvonne is
brash and boisterous, and Mrs. Wilkinson is a combination: stern yet apathetic.
Unlike Cronenberg's other works, particularly "Crash" and "eXistenZ," there is very little action and energy. The
film plods along at a slow pace and ends, not with a bang, but a whimper. Despite appreciable acting, it is
obvious that the film was a difficult translation from the book. Screenwriter Patrick McGrath adapts his own
novel, a very exhilarating narrative and stream of thought, into empty celluloid. In the book, you learn about
Spider from his memoirs. He does not speak or mutter. He speaks distinctly in first person. Hence, you read his
thoughts and emotions. You get to know him. But in the film, you do not get to know Spider because he is
practically mute and cannot relay his thoughts in such an eloquent fashion.
"Spider" is not scary nor is it haunting in any way. It is a passive, methodical look at psychosis and
disillusionment. While intelligent on paper, the transition to film suffers from a lack of depth and richness
that are so vividly described in McGrath's book. It's like looking at a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces