By Shawn McKenzie 02/28/2003
Normally as a rule, I’m not a big fan of trippy movies that don’t make sense. I usually don’t like any movie that requires illegal substances in order to understand what is going on. David Cronenberg movies are usually the exception to the rule. He has had some of the weirdest, trippiest, most disturbing movies of the last thirty years. While I haven’t liked all of his movies (Naked Lunch is an example of one I wasn’t too fond of), most of them have been interesting to watch. His latest, Spider, is interesting, but it is also a huge departure from his usual style.
An extremely disturbed boy suffering from acute schizophrenia, named Dennis Cleg (Bradley Hall), lives in East End London in the ‘60s with his father, Bill (Gabriel Byrne), and his mother (Miranda Richardson.) Mrs. Cleg has nicknamed him “Spider” because of the string he likes to collect. In a state of delusion, Spider “sees” his father viciously kill his mother and replace her with a prostitute, Yvonne (also Miranda Richardson.) Not wanting to be the next victim, Spider comes up with a complicated plan to take them out, which he carries through with disastrous consequences. Twenty years later, an adult Spider (Ralph Fiennes) is released into a halfway house from the mental institution he was in. The landlady of the house, Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave), doesn’t seem to care much about her tenants, which include Spider and fellow formerly-institutionalized resident Terrence (John Neville.) All Mrs. Wilkinson cares about is the money she receives from the government to take these people into her house. Since he is not being properly supervised, Spider stops taking his medication and starts going back to the places he remembers from his childhood. As Spider tries to account for the events of his past, he starts to slip into a new state of mental illness as a result of the withdrawal of his medication.
How is Spider different from the typical Cronenberg flick? Most, if not all, Cronenberg movies employ some sort of special effect, mainly in order to be gross, but memorable. Unless I’m forgetting one, before Spider, the Cronenberg movie with the least amount of special effects was Crash. Even that movie had a lot of violent crash effects. Spider doesn’t have a single effect in the movie. You would think there would be some morphing effect to represent Spider’s delusions, but there isn’t. After the screening I saw of the movie, Cronenberg himself participated in a 45-minute Q & A session with the audience. He brought up the no-special-effects thing and stated that he had a few prepared, but when he implemented them, they didn’t feel right. After seeing the movie in general, I’d have to agree that the effects he was considering would have been a distraction instead of an enhancement.
As far as the movie itself, I liked Ron Howard’s 2001 Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind better in the schizophrenia-induced visions genre. Maybe that makes me sheepish in a movie-going crowd, but hey, I likes what I likes! It’s not that I didn’t like Spider, but I may have been going into the movie with different expectations as a fan of Cronenberg. The performances were all fine. Richardson pulled off playing three characters: Mrs. Cleg, Yvonne, and a character that appears near the end of the movie (which I won’t spoil for you, but it is a clue to Spider’s state of mind.) Fiennes is creepy, yet sympathetic. I think they could have gotten a more menacing actor than Byrne to play Bill though.
I have to give Cronenberg kudos for taking some chances and stretching beyond his usual gimmick, though Spider is just an okay film. If you are a fan of the legendary gross-out director and you plan to see this film, be prepared to witness a piece of work that completely different from the rest of his directorial resume. You can then decide whether you like this direction or if you think he should keep it at a one-movie pit stop. I personally would be curious to see him make more movies like this, but I still want to see those exploding head effects as well!
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