Along came a …
In director David Cronenberg’s new movie Spider, Ralph Fiennes plays Dennis Cleg, a boy nicknamed Spider by his loving mother (Miranda Richardson) because of his fascination with arachnids, a fascination that led him, as a child, to crisscross his bedroom with knotted string, imitating their webs.
We first meet Spider when he arrives in London by train. As we soon will learn, Spider has been released from a mental institution and is on his way to a halfway house. The train disgorges its passengers, dozens of them, and they stride purposefully along the platform, interweaving in a traffic pattern of orderly chaos. Then they’re gone, and the platform is empty and quiet. There’s a pause, and Spider finally emerges from the train, slowly—we see one eye, the nose, the other eye, the whole head, the shoulders and so on. Cronenberg and Fiennes make Spider’s entrance a visual metaphor for his mental condition: He comes off the train in pieces.
Spider makes his way, muttering and quivering, to the halfway house, where he is greeted by the supervisor, Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave). She’s severe-looking, with dishwater hair yanked back into an unfeminine ponytail. She’s formal to the point of curtness—Dick Tracy in drag. She’s like Nurse Ratched without the sadism or the pretend warmth.
In the lounge—if that’s not too cozy a word for the house’s stark, grimy common room—Spider meets Terrence (John Neville), a courtly old gent who may have been almost debonair once. “You’ll find it’s quite a change from the other place,” he reassures Spider. “The asylum. It has a curious character, but one grows used to it—after only a very few years.”
It’s never exactly made clear how Spider got this far, and we sense that he isn’t ready for it. The past is ever-present to Spider; he literally walks through it watching his mother and his father, a plumber (Gabriel Byrne), and himself as a boy (Bradley Hall II), in their working-class apartment. We sense also that we’re getting hints of what sent Spider to the asylum in the first place. The film inches toward the heart of the matter, bit by bit, like peeling back the leaves of an artichoke. Cronenberg nurtures an aura of dreadful fascination; we’re not sure we want to go where he’s taking us, but we can’t look away.
Spider is written by Patrick McGrath II, from his novel, but it’s Cronenberg’s movie, make no mistake. He moves around inside Spider’s head, rummaging through the closets and drawers of his memory. When Spider’s father takes up with Yvonne, a blond slattern he picks up in a pub, the grown Spider is there watching, his face subtly twisted with anguish. Did the boy Spider know about this? Did his father’s betrayal have something to do with making him the mumbling, nicotine-stained wreck he is today? Another leaf, and another, and another, are gingerly stripped away.
There’s a masterstroke, too. I haven’t read McGrath’s book, so I don’t know if there’s anything in his text to suggest it, but it seems like something that’s pure Cronenberg: The cheap, vulgar Yvonne is played by Miranda Richardson, just as Spider’s prim and perfect mother is. And Richardson is such a brilliant, resourceful actress that the film is almost half over before we notice. Is this the way Spider sees the two women in his memory: the virgin and the whore with a single face, a face that changes to match the soul beneath? When yet another woman turns to Spider and snarls, “What are you looking at me like that for?” and we see that same face—Richardson’s again, of course—we understand that we’re in Spider’s shoes now, whether we like it or not. He can’t sort out his past from his present, reality from memory or fantasy. And now, neither can we.
The sorting comes, such as it is, and finally things make a sort of sense. Cronenberg at last lets us escape from Spider’s tortured head, and we stand back, watching him move off, back into whatever world he came from. It’s a relief and no small mercy from Cronenberg. We feel like we got out in the nick of time.