Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, June 25, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (2002)

16. Spider

“Spider” was the first David Cronenberg film to come out after I became really interested in the director's work. It would, in many ways, begin a new stage of the director's career. While Cronenberg had been drifting away from the horror and science fiction films that made him famous for quite some time, “Spider” would be the first movie he made seemingly as a bid for mainstream critical acclaim. While still awash in the themes and ideas that have fascinated him all along, “Spider” is a markedly different type of movie than Cronenberg's previous films. The film would earn positive reviews but would not be the breakthrough it could've been. “Spider” remains one of the director's less discussed pictures.

Dennis “Spider” Cleg has recently been released from a mental institution into the care of a halfway house. The building is in the same part of London where Dennis grew up. A schizophrenic, Dennis begins to remember his childhood. He attempts to piece together the events, as he remembers them, that led to his mother's death. He recalls his mom disappearing one day, while his father replaced her with another woman. Due to his condition, Dennis' past and present blends together. New and old memories become indistinct from each other, while Spider's grasp on his sanity becomes more slippery than ever.

Through “Videodrome,” “Naked Lunch,” and “eXistenZ,” David Cronenberg has created his fair share of unreliable narrators. Stories that take place on different or uncertain levels of reality are practically a trademark of his by now. Spider may be the most unreliable of Cronenberg's unreliable narrators. He is uncertain of his past and his present. His memories are an open wound, constantly shifting around him. “Spider” can almost be read as a murder mystery. In his old neighborhood, Dennis digs up clues and revisits childhood haunts. But the hero is a schizophrenic and we're not even sure a murder actually happened. By taking us completely inside the mind of an insane man, Cronenberg no longer has the need to make the internal external. We're inside the internal now.

“Spider' adopts its protagonist's damaged worldview fully, leading an interesting approach to the story. As he retraces his old haunts, Spider gets to relive his childhood. The film shows this in a rather literal fashion. “Spider” depicts the adult Dennis standing inside his old memories. He sees himself as a child, sees his mother and father. He stands in the corner of his childhood kitchen, watching arguments between his parents play out. He sits in the old bar, his young self and his father standing in front of him. This is a really interesting way to depict memories, showing the rememberer more involved in his own thoughts.  It also allows the audience to re-experience this events at the same time the character is.

In “Spider,” Cronenberg also revisits the idea of shifting roles and identities. For the third time, after Jeremy Irons in “Dead Ringers” and Judy Davis in “Naked Lunch,” the director has one actor inhabiting two separate roles. Miranda Richardson plays both Spider's mother and the vulgar blonde his father replaces her with. However, you'll be excused for not noticing this at first, as Richardson is put under enough make-up that she looks different. The shift is another example of Cleg's uncertain memories and mind. Yet his uncertainty isn't limited to his mother figures. At one point, Dennis switches places with his father. Cronenberg's favored theme of fluid identities finds a new meaning in “Spider,” a movie about the frailty of the human mind.

That scene where Spider puts himself in his father place is a sex scene, by the way. That speaks to the blatant Oedipal themes present in “Spider.” Dennis is very close to his mother. His father, on the other hand, is distant and cold towards him. The boy's disassociative episodes seemingly begin when he sees his father and mother intimately kissing outside his window. The next night, he sees his mother in a clinging nightgown, a sight that seems to captivate the young boy. Dennis' growing sexual desires are wrapped up in his feelings towards his mother. The town floozy that his father brings home shows little Dennis her breast. Adult Spider carries a nude photograph of the woman in his pocket. As I said, it's the same actress, further suggesting the twisted desires the character feels. The transformation of a child going into puberty goes along with Dennis' mind transforming into a tangled web.

“Spider” is full of some rather obvious visual symbolism. Dennis' mother nicknames him Spider because of his fascination with tying together strands of string. This stems from a story she frequently tells him about her discovering a mother spider when she was a child. As an adult in the halfway home, Dennis resumes the habit of creating homemade spider webs. This clearly represents the tangles of his own mind. In the halfway home, he repeatedly attempts to complete a jigsaw puzzle. This is compared with a broken window that was shattered during his time in the mental hospital. Clearly, this is indicative of his fractured mind and his attempts to put his past back together. Outside the halfway home is a giant, black silo. It looms over Spider, casting a shadow over him and his home, like the mental illness that has taken over his mind. I can assume these elements were taken from Patrick McGarth's source novel but it's clear Cronenberg must have been fond of them too.

Though the script is ambitious and its themes fascinating, “Spider” works primarily because of Ralph Finnes' lead performance. Finnes does not glamorize mental illness. Spider rarely talks in complete sentences. Mostly, he mumbles to himself, incoherently stringing words together in an unclear mutter. Finnes' body language is stiff and downtrodden, Spider usually looking down at his feet. He trembles frequently. He shows an odd obsession with the placement of his feet. This is an accurate depiction of someone deeply ravaged by mental illness. Finnes' performance is bravely inglorious. This is not the typical Hollywood depiction of the mentally ill, as someone struggling against a disease or full of eccentric wisdom. This is a man completely broken by his fractured mind.

As in a few other Cronenberg films, “Spider's” most important roles are shared among three people. Gabriel Byrne plays Bill, Dennis' father. Byrne does well at playing cold and distant, a man who clearly does not know what to do with a sick son. However, Byrne gets enough humanizing moments to show Bill Cleg was concerned about his boy. Miranda Richardson plays the dual roles of Mrs. Cleg and Yvonne. As I said, Richardson does an excellent job of creating two separate characters. You're unlikely to notice the two women are played by the same actress at first, due to how different they look. Richardson doesn't just let the make-up do all the work. She creates two distinct characters, a patient and gentle mother and a vulgar trollop.

In an interesting decision, the landlady who runs the half-way house resembles both Mrs. Cleg and Yvonne. At one key moment, the three seem to blur together. Lynn Redgrave plays this part, Mrs. Wilkenson. It's not the film's most well written role, as Wilkenson is mostly just confused and annoyed by Spider's behavior, but Redgrave still does fine. John Neville appears as Terrance, another former mental patient who lies compulsively. Though a much smaller part, Neville does a similarly good job of honestly depicting an ill man. Credit most also be given to Bradley Hall, who plays Spider as a child. His big eyes seem to show a detached chilliness, speaking to the character's illness.

“Spider” continues David Cronenberg's long, fruitful relationship with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. The film's color palettes matches the darkness of the main character's mind. “Spider” is a film in shades of black, deep blues, and sickly greens. This not only suggests Spider's sick mind but also the dreariness of the location. The English setting is overcast and grey. It's a place where no happiness can take root. No wonder Spider is so unwell, he lives in a sunless world. This visual approach pairs well with Howard Shore's haunting score.

Much like “Dead Ringers,” “Spider” is ultimately a tragedy. The truth of what happened in Spider's youth, of why he was sent away to the mental hospital, is revealed right near the end. It's something like a twist ending but far sadder than that. It shows how the human mind can betray us. Following this, the film does not conclude on a shocking reveal or a sudden ending. Instead, it just slowly rolls to an end. Spider does not know the way out of his own web. Sometimes, there is no happy ending for sick people.

Cronenberg, Finnes, and Richardson believed enough in the movie that they worked for free, allowing the budget to be spent on the film instead of them. This conviction would be rewarded with some nice reviews but few statues. “Spider” would not receive a wide enough release to penetrate the mainstream critical conscious. Even if it had, it's unlikely a film this downbeat and unflinching would resonate with award shows. “Spider” is still a worthy picture to see, a gripping and sad exploration of mental illness that still shows David Cronenberg's pet themes and ideas surviving. [Grade: B]

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