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"Fails to connect with its audience and concludes in a contradictory and jumbled fashion."
"Spider's present life and his past memories are highly distorted and there is no clarity."
"It's like looking at a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing."


Dennis 'Spider' Cleg: Ralph Fiennes
Mrs. Cleg: Miranda Richardson
Bill Cleg: Gabriel Byrne
Mrs. Wilkinson: Lynn Redgrave
Boy Spider: Bradley Hall
Terrence: John Neville
Freddy: Gary Reineke
John: Philip Craig
Gladys: Sara Stockbridge
Review April 2003

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 house.

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 missing.

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