Spider, written by Patrick McGrath, based on the novel of the same name by Patrick McGrath; directed by David Cronenberg; starring Ralph Fiennes (“Spider” Cleg), Miranda Richardson (Mrs. Cleg/Yvonne/Mrs. Wilkinson), Gabriel Byrne (Bill Cleg), Lynn Redgrave (Mrs. Wilkinson) and John Neville (Terrence) (2002): David Cronenberg, bless his soul, likes to go places other filmmakers don’t, won’t, or can’t. In the case of Spider, he heads back into the territory of Dead Ringers, giving us a horror story in which there is no catharsis, no growth, and no hope. It’s an astonishingly bleak film.
Ralph Fiennes, complete with hair that was apparently an homage to Samuel Beckett (the playwright, not the Quantum Leaper), plays the titular schizophrenic without the bells and whistles someone like, say, Robert DeNiro might have demanded. There’s no showiness, no look-at-me-acting scene of yelling or imploring the audience for empathy. Spider is almost completely mute, and when he does talk, he mumbles incoherently.
Spider’s been released from a mental asylum into a halfway house when the movie begins, in a rundown, vaguely 1980’s-looking urban England. His nickname comes from a tendency he’s had since childhood to weave elaborate webs out of string and pieces of rope. He’s a pattern maker. But he’s also schizophrenic. The patterns he makes, the viewer needs to remember, may look sound, but they’re inherently flawed.
The movie takes us through Spider’s reminscences of his childhood, of what seems to be an ogre-ish and unfaithful father and a saint of a mother. How reliable are Spider’s memories? Therein lies the mystery of the movie, inevitable as death. This isn’t a movie to enjoy in a normal way — it’s horrifying, and there’s no attempt to make Spider warm and cuddly, a Hollywood madman. He’s very sick. And schizophrenia doesn’t spring from some easily understandable childhood trauma: it’s a disease, a cancer of the mind.
I was exhausted by the end of the movie, and that was from watching it in 20-minute increments over several days. But it was a good exhaustedness. But this isn’t Rain Man or A Beautiful Mind. There are no easy life lessons here, no Nobel Prize, no well-meaning brother who learns valuable things from someone with cognitive difficulties, though there are, even for Spider, flashes of clarity amidst the crushing horror. And the clarity just makes the horror worse. Highly recommended.