Themes of self-delusion float to the fore again with David Cronenberg’s Spider, a 2002 film based on Patrick McGrath’s novel of the same name. As with most of the director’s movies, much of this outing defies explanation. It is also intensely sad, like watching someone fade away.
Spider invokes an impenetrable world, a room inside the mind of the protagonist. The cobwebbing themes are settled with elegance and care, however, and that keeps things human. There are explorations of repression and the choking drift of time has turned memory itself into a puzzle.
Ralph Fiennes is Dennis Cleg, a man who arrives at a halfway house in London’s King’s Cross. The place is run by Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave). Cleg begins to relive childhood memories, where his younger self (Bradley Hall) bears witness to some kind of trauma.
Cleg is close with his mother (Miranda Richardson), but things shift when he sees his father Bill (Gabriel Byrne) groping her. Bill appears to have an affair with Yvonne (Richardson) and that leads to the murder of his mother. Young Dennis, also called Spider, struggles with construing these events. Adult Spider doesn’t fare much better.
Fiennes’ Spider is the epitome of the unreliable narrator. He scrawls notes in a pad and the audience sees that he’s writing gibberish. He mumbles and shuffles through life, but infrequent words manifest themselves. His thoughts have some consistency until something gets in the way and the fragments tumble apart.
Cronenberg’s exploration of the human condition may take a different path than is customary with his obscure delineation of mental illness, but Spider still weaves a detailed narrative. Like M. Butterfly, Dead Ringers and Crash, Spider contends with people insulating themselves from reality in one way or another.
And like most of Cronenberg’s works, sex is vital. Spider hinges on primitive awakening, with a boy’s recognition of his father’s sexual interest in his mother. This moment seems to fracture young Spider beyond repair.
What happens next is a matter of interpretation. One can scarcely be blamed for not taking Spider’s word for it. He “witnesses” the killing of his mother and it plays like black comedy, complete with sour laughter. And the scene in which his father first engages in a sexual act with Yvonne is similarly dark, with the upshot flicked on the lens.
Like Crash, Spider keeps the audience at arm’s length. There is a desolate chill, but Spider is brown in the face of Crash’s grey-blue. This is in part because of the setting, with a faded past full of shacks and cloudy bathwater staining the pieces of working-class English life. But it’s also due to an annulment of technology, with Cronenberg’s traditional concerns decades away.
Spider is a sophisticated motion picture. It is bolstered by marvellous performances and allows Howard Shore’s score to help navigate the broken glass. It is poignant, desperate, faint, sexual, unsteady. And it is human and humane, with Oedipal apprehension supplying a lambent tinge of subjugation and fear in a King’s Cross boarding house.