Web of Confusion 

Cronenberg’s Spider offers controlled but lifeless portrait of schizophrenia

Cronenberg’s Spider offers controlled but lifeless portrait of schizophrenia

For a David Cronenberg film about a schizophrenic, Spider is oddly staid. Over the course of a 30-year career, the Canadian filmmaker has pursued the same set of themes: the malleability of the body, its ability to overpower the mind, and the fragility of mental constructs such as identity and reality. From the man once dubbed “the king of venereal horror,” we’ve come to expect gruesome meditations on the linkage between disease, sex and fleshly vulnerability. Compared to his previous literary adaptations Dead Ringers and Naked Lunch, however, Spider has little bite. Adapted by Patrick McGrath from his novel, Spider suggests that McGrath should have taken a few psychology courses beyond Freud 101.

The movie begins promisingly. Released from a mental institution, Dennis “Spider” Clegg (Ralph Fiennes) enters a halfway house. A schizophrenic, he returns to the East End London streets where he lived as a boy; if he cannot conquer the demons of his traumatic childhood, he will at least learn to live with them. Memory defeats his attempts, propelling him back into a remembered past where ghosts haunt his surroundings. Eventually, he starts living there entirely, stuck in extensive flashbacks to his childhood. These flashbacks may or may not be accurate, since Spider stands in the same frame watching his younger self (Bradley Hall), father (Gabriel Byrne) and mother (Miranda Richardson) from an unobtrusive corner or closet. Yet all seem to point to a mysterious trauma that left him emotionally scarred.

Ralph Fiennes is a good choice as Spider. Despite his movie-star looks and status, Fiennes has a way of looking rumpled even when neatly dressed; a subtly grungy patina clings to him. As Spider crouches and scribbles in a private language, the actor’s performance remains just this side of a Method stunt. Ultimately, though, it feels convincing, even when he stammers nonsense syllables. It helps that Hall, the 10-year-old actor who plays the young Spider, is a real find, as much for his looks as his performance. He resembles a younger Fiennes with an alarmingly alien stare—he could have crawled off the cover of a Whitley Strieber UFO book.

Unfortunately, long stretches of Spider feel like a weirder, more deliberately paced version of a Neil Jordan or Stephen Frears film about growing up in ’50s London. Even though Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky give their version a distinctive glow, the film’s primitive psychology (which revolves around an Oedipal complex directed against women) is difficult to take seriously. In Cronenberg and McGrath’s simplistic rhyming imagery, the young Spider earns his nickname by constructing a rope web in his room. The name becomes a symbol of sexual fatalism, as Spider learns that a female spider dies after she spins her web and exhausts her silk supply making a pouch for her eggs. He constructs a similar web in his room at the halfway house. Back at the mental institution, a pane of glass shatters into web-like fragments.

Cronenberg deserves credit for venturing into a fresh set of symbols, but this film’s ideas aren’t new. In his work, perception has usually been faulty, mediated by drugs or, well, media. Spider replays the same trope, using schizophrenia as the mediator. At first, it seems like it might have something new to say about this condition. The movie’s oneiric quality is fairly subtle: The Cleggs’ neighborhood always seems deserted, but it’s a short walk away from the crowded pub where Spider’s dad and a trio of “tarts” hang out. Cronenberg handles the film’s gamesmanship with identity by having the adult Spider literally walk through his childhood.

As fascinating as these techniques are initially, by the film’s midpoint they’ve become tedious and repetitive. Cronenberg’s formal rigor is defeated by a screenplay that palms off twists and confused judgment as great revelations rather than screenwriter’s tricks. In the poorly received Videodrome, the director did a far better job of evoking a world resembling our own, but seen from a much different perspective (and without relying on simple explanations for the protagonist’s malaise). Even his Crash created a universe that looked like ours but operated on a different erotic and emotional tangent. Spider simply shows a man gibbering and staggering through an hour of ambiguous flashbacks meant to represent a splintered consciousness. For less patient viewers, the result may be unconsciousness.

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