Insanity is such an Ugly Thing! I should know... I went to High School in Shreveport, Louisiana! Insanity takes many forms from mad Dictators to the whack job who simply rips off all the soup can labels before giving them to charity causing the local Soup Kitchen to serve stew with Pumpkin Pie filling in it! From the little to the big, it's an uggo thing! I'll tell you someone who knows crazy better than I do, better than Charles Manson does and better even than John Ashcroft does... his name is David Cronenberg and he peddles crazy like a Gucci Watch replica on the corner of Haight and Ashbury. From his earliest Horror work to his forcing us to watch Jeremy Irons kiss John Lone (equally horrifying) to 2002's Spider, David Cronenberg is unquestionably the greatest director ever to come out of Bizarro World!
Spider is based on the Patrick McGrath novel of the same name. McGrath himself is no stranger to the "touched" having brought us 1995's The Grotesque! So after seeing Naked Lunch I suppose that it was only a matter of seconds before Cronenberg and McGrath joined forces to offer up a parade of exploding heads and poet eating. Well, smile pretty boys and girls, because this is definitely not what we get! Spider is an incredibly subdued and well-paced drama of psychological horror and detached self-examination. This film is indeed insane, but it's just about the best kind of insane one could hope for (Swept Away notwithstanding).
It's difficult to review this piece without spoilers, but I will do my best. Ralph Fiennes is featured in a role reminiscent of an English Mickey Rourke. He's unshaven, unclean, mentally ill, and out of work. He appears to move into a halfway house where he meets Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave) and Terrence (The X-Files' John Neville, now decidedly not a well-manicured man). Amid the insane, yet somewhat stable housemates and the den-motherly Wilkinson, Fiennes' character begins to follow the lives of a local family in a series of disjointed and distant vignettes which may or may not amount to his own memories. The deeper he delves into the saga of this family as well as moments that are indeed his own memory, his reality begins to twist along with what he sees in his mind causing massive confusion and brooding, not just for Fiennes' character, but for the viewer as well!
The interesting thing about Spider is the uncertainty of the entire picture. From the outset it is clear that Cronenberg knows exactly the kind of movie he wants to make, and does so effectively. For all Cronenberg's steadiness, the audience has much less an idea what's going on than Fiennes' character does. Is Fiennes a psychic? Is he insane at all? Which life is the imagined (or remembered) life? It takes a long time to discover the truths behind the answers to these questions, and it's not an easy ride.
But it is a fascinating ride. As the main character's reality melts we see actors taking on more than one role (in many cases roles already established by different actors). This signifies the main character's confusion between who is who and in which reality. One even gets to the point at which everything appears that it must be an illusion, and nothing is real.
There are times in which the plot seems a bit on the vapid side, however this only aids in the set mood of the film. The film appears in so many ways to be bleak and depressing. Fiennes feels from the first to the last second as if he has nothing in life to smile about, and boy does he not. From the blackness of night to the blue-gray day, there are almost no bright sun shiny James Taylor moments. The viewer is given the feeling of being set adrift on dark waters in unfriendly psychological territory without a row. The film floats from image to image with equal parts detachment and confusion, somehow managing to keep one simultaneously off their toes and frustrated by lack of clarity.
The acting is overall very good. Gabriel Byrne essentially plays Gabriel Byrne as he has been known to do. As the character he plays is a British Isles working man he delivers what he's required to quite well. Ten year old Bradley Hall (not Julia Louis-Dreyfus' husband) is striking as the title character. There may be no such thing as a "child actor" but Hall pulls off everything in his wide eyed yet sad and confused repartee that is demanded by McGrath's script. It's Miranda Richardson that takes the cake though. Here she shines as Spider's mother (most of the time). Her revolutionary changes in performance when needed effectively fool the audience as to what really goes on and when. Richardson is brilliant in probably every role I've seen or heard her in, and especially shines here. Give me more of Miranda any day!
This isn't a perfect film, although it is quite good. At times the bleak and detached nature can lead to a little boredom. Fiennes isn't given much beyond one word replies or predictive lines in the dialogue category. His character further isn't much in the way of expression. The majority of his part consists of reacting blandly to the transpirings around (or within) him. He seems to play Prozac the whole way through and doesn't get much sympathy, even when that seems needed. When he does shine, it's worth it, but there are only rare opportunities (he is effectively chilling as Spider builds his web). The film's intentional confusion further might turn off some viewers, as it is very hard to follow sometimes, but those who love a good mystery and want to actually think about a film should apply herein! There is also a little bit of the old dark humor that one must watch to catch. Don't blink... you might laugh!
Three and one half stars for Spider! It's a very good film from a very good director and a very good writer. Thankfully it wasn't the cow flop that Naked Lunch was because that movie proved that good directors and good writers can still come up with some massive sucking wounds of films once in a bad while. It's good to see such a focused film even if the focus is being out of focus (you think that's confusing, watch Spider)! I am interested in reading the novel now. As McGrath adapted his own work, I can't imagine this was much of a Gregory Benford film, but I would be interested to see what surprises that book holds! Watch this space for a literary review of Patrick McGrath's Spider!