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Spider By Matt Singer
I love reading movie reviews, but I typically avoid them when I’m writing, in order to keep my opinion pure and my style my own. But after viewing Spider, I wanted to compare my experience to that of others. Spider is a movie of confused perception and mental illness, but unlike more mainstream films in this vein like A Beautiful Mind or Memento, it is like a puzzle with no solution. Even though the end has a “revelation” it too could be interpreted more than one way. After a movie of such unclear realities, I wanted the reassurance of shared opinions. It is a perplexing little movie that is made memorable by some truly impressive performances.
Ralph Fiennes stars as Dennis Cleig, nicknamed “Spider” by his mother (Miranda Richardson) for his affinity for their webs. He arrives in the film via a grand tracking shot, as disembarking train passengers cheerfully and speedily pass by the camera, we slowly push through them until we find Spider. We learn he’s just been released from a mental institution, and after wandering the streets, picking up junk and muttering constantly to himself, makes his way to a halfway house near his childhood home.
These scenes are filled with lengthy silences and little dialogue, the better to admire the impressive performance by Fiennes - and he is good; just don’t expect a smoothly-paced film. Scene after scene presents Spider, hunched over and grimacing as if he has a giant weight on his back, stretching huge threads about his room into webs, writing gibberish with a tiny pencil in a notebook, and smoking the thinnest cigarettes in history. His neighbors are equally mysterious and bizarre, and the caretaker, Ms. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave) is stern and unaccommodating.
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You are waiting for something to happen and eventually it does in the form of a string of flashbacks to Spider’s childhood. The adult Spider wanders his own memories, viewing them from corners and outside windows, suggesting a man trapped and tortured by his past. His mother nurtures him, but his father is uninterested in his family, and soon looks to trade in his wife for Yvonne, the loudest strumpet in the local bar, also played by Ms. Richardson. The actress is so good in both parts, that if you didn’t know about the double portrayal, you wouldn’t recognize her. Though I was aware that an actress played two different parts in the film, it took several scenes before I realized it was that actress in those parts (and not to give too much away, keep your eyes open for Richardson in a third role).
Spider’s complex past provides much of the film’s mysteries and intrigues so I am hesitant to reveal too much more. There is not much dramatic momentum; the plot tends to shuffle and start like its protagonist, and the anticlimactic finale is easily predictable even as it is not reliable, since it comes from the perspective of Spider, whose mental instability and all-consuming fear of women brings the veracity of all we see into question.
Spider is ultimately well made, but not entirely satisfying. I went in expecting a spooky and challenging film about mental illness, which remains a perfectly accurate description of the film. But following director David Cronenberg’s sensibilities, it is not a commercial film and it does not provide payoffs for its story or its characters. It is a confounding ninety minute window in the mind of someone who is very insane. And that, it would seem, is all it is.