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Spider (David Cronenberg) 2002
Moving away from the explorations of the “New Flesh” that have fueled his creative career since its start, Canadian horror auteur David Cronenberg turns in what’s probably his best work to date with his studied schizophrenia drama Spider. What’s more surprising coming from this one-time splatter film director than the shift in subject matter, though, is that what makes the film feel so incredibly well realized is what we don’t see in on the screen. Eschewing most of the gloss and falsification that has powered nearly every past filmic depiction of mental illness, Spider’s minimalist vibe manifests itself in nearly all of its elements. The end result oddly seems revolutionary precisely because it tosses out so much cinematic technique, achieving far more technical excitement and emotional effect that one would think possible with what seems to be such effortless direction.
Perhaps most noticeable to the viewer who’s tallying up the ways that Cronenberg flays filmic fat from his film will be the remarkably restrained performance from Ralph Fiennes, as Spider, who gets his nickname because of his tendency to play with twine. The actor’s work contains none of the feel good mannerisms of such likeable mentally challenged heroes as Geoffrey Rush’s turn in Shine or Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. This picture isn’t constructed around any particular triumph over adversity, except perhaps the protagonist’s struggle to work through his tortured past yet once more. The emotional climax of Spider comes not when the titular character plays a symphony or wins a Nobel Prize, but when he finds a set of keys lying around, thereby giving him a fleeting sense of control. The slim grin that appears on Spider’s face at this moment, though, is infinitely more affecting than anything in either of those other two movies, since it shows us what his, and not our, idea of a triumph would feel like. Though David Helfgott and John Nash’s movie portrayals might be based in the reality of their exceptional protagonists, they achieve remarkable things by any standards. Without their disability, they would still be accomplished people. Spider can lay no such claim to fame, and as a result, there’s no doubt that the tribulations shown in the film are a lot closer to the fears and confusion that the average schizophrenic must feel. Fiennes gives up glamour - and scenery chewing - entirely as he mumbles through the picture with his head lowered and his feet shuffling.
Spider’s script is behind the actor all the way, though, since it never turns the quirks of his performance into a parlor trick. The rigor that Cronenberg shows here is so focused that it makes the psychological shenanigans of his Dead Ringers look like they belong in an old Frankenstein film. With absolutely no psychobabble, the director and co-screenwriter Patrick McGrath (who wrote the film’s source novel) create a dynamic and riveting tour of their central character’s interior thoughts. Cronenberg’s direction superbly approximates the horror that Spider feels when he launches into his delusions or memories with nary a fade or dissolve. With no conventional flag to tell the audience that we have shifted into another plane of reality, we’re stuck alongside poor Spider, forced to watch inertly with him as the events of the past unfold. Usually, when Spider’s stuck in a memory, and not a flight of fancy, we see both the fully-grown man and the healthy boy he once was on the screen. Both of them are cursed with their passivity, and since the film only provides Spider’s subjective viewpoint as events unfold, we feel the oppressive, helpless crunch that comes with the knowledge that the outcome of these proceedings is inevitable.
Cronenberg mines even more horror from the situation he sets up in Spider when he crosscuts with the film’s present. As the film opens, Spider is released from a mental asylum and enters a convalescent home near the shabby green area where he grew up. Every image that he sees as he wanders the streets of his hometown feels loaded with a sense of dread, but it’s only gradually that we realize what meaning each of them contains. The film’s look uses cold metal and rotting, dilapidated homes to reflect its protagonist’s state of mind, but because Howard Shore’s score so delicately, yet insistently, sets the tone and lets us know that everything that we’re seeing is important and ominous, these potential visual clichés remain transfixing. The incongruous end to Spider’s treatment is that he is placed directly in the environment that caused his condition after he is deemed sane enough to leave his institutionalization, and the film never lets us forget that he needs to cope with a physical as well as a mental proximity to his past. He’s simultaneously attracted to and repelled by the locale, and the movie seems always balanced delicately between the two. One of the most intelligently appalling points that Spider raises occurs when Spider wanders down the very street where he grew up. Perhaps desperate to confront his demons when he stands in front of his former home, he’s taunted by the all-too-real presence of a happy mother-son relationship. The message here explains exactly what makes schizophrenia such a terrifying ordeal. Though Spider has the ability to live mostly in his past, he has no control over that ability. He has no power to invoke his alternate reality at will and is often subject to harsh reality at the worst at times. Any time that the film seems to be going for an easy exploitation of the quirks of Spider’s illness (the scene with the broken glass, the hammer and chisel, and the sock-wallet all spring to mind), it seems to later reprimand us for even expecting such treatment of a legitimately tragic condition. Unlike the misconceptions put forth by A Beautiful Mind, Spider shows that having schizophrenia doesn’t equate with having plenty of imaginary friends to play with when you feel lonely.
Spider starts with deceptive simplicity, using a title sequence that makes ink blots out of stained wallpaper and is so coy as to have the title card cower in a corner, but as it proceeds, it becomes apparent that any perceived straightforwardness is a trap. Far less simple than succinct, Cronenberg’s film spins a complex Freudian web entirely through its action and visual scheming. The spider’s web is the film’s obvious central metaphor, but Cronenberg continually surprises us with how thoroughly he extends it. The script’s structure, like a web, is constructed circularly and as we wind our way closer to its center, we begin to pass recurring locales, faces, and feelings. This narrative construction makes perfect sense, given the subject matter, since Spider is forced to deal with his past as it seeps back into whatever present he’s experiencing. A recurring image doesn’t so much stir a sense of déjà vu in him as it defines his perception of reality. Like most webs, though this spider’s web is a bit of a trap, and it’s only a gnawing sensation at the back of the audience member’s head that will remind them that they’re seeing things that Spider was never privy to. Just as Spider cannot distinguish between his past and present, he seems unable to distinguish his imaginings from his actual experience. Although the film never exploits his defect to wrest an inappropriately twisty end from the plot, it does remind us time and again that much of the story takes place outside of his very subjective point of view. Because of the picture’s structure, which approximates the written internal monologue in pictorial terms, this wild conjecture seems far less an endeavor of writers trying to plug holes in their story than a desperate attempt by the protagonist to explain away much of his guilt. Like his most childlike and frantic attempts to destroy the physical remnants of his past, though, we come to understand that his distorted reality is a defense mechanism prompted by a truth too horrific to confront head on. For many in the audience, Cronenberg’s attempt to approximate this state of mind through his film might seem overly precious, but personally, I found so much genuine heartache in Spider’s current form that a more straightforward look at his pain would probably have been too much to bear.
* * * * Masterpiece