David Cronenberg: Spider (2002)

In my review of eXistenZ, I suggested that that film marked the end of a particular phase of Cronenberg’s career and that Spider, his 2002 follow up, marked a turn of sorts in his career. One can also see it as a kind of caesura—which means a pause between movements—before his subsequent film, A History of Violence, which would become his biggest box office hit since The Fly and kick off a number of collaborations with Viggo Mortensen. But before that phase of his career, he made Spider, a film that doesn’t easily fit with what came before or after.

Spider is more intimate than the films that preceded and followed it. It’s focused on a handful of characters and relies strongly on the performances of its lead actors, notably Ralph Fiennes in the title role of Dennis “Spider” Cleg, a mentally ill man whose nickname points to his cloistered and webbed mind, and Miranda Richardson in a key dual supporting role. It’s fairly concise in the scope of its plot as well. Based on the novel by Patrick McGrath, who also provided the screenplay, Spider is an attempt to bring a fairly literary conceit, the unreliable narrator, to the screen. What is perhaps most impressive about this film with a number of praiseworthy aspects is how successful it is in bringing the subjectivity of a schizophrenic to the screen.

Many films covering similar territory would fall under the umbrella of the “puzzle film;” they would be about finding out the truth of the plot. But Spider is more of an exploration of the ways that a severe mental illness like schizophrenia becomes an entire world for the person afflicted. What makes Spider a particularly Cronenbergesque film is the way that it explores issues of sexuality, the notion of what constitutes mental health, and the way that our biological interface with the world can ultimately betray us. It does this without fancy camera tricks or shocking twists. Instead, it draws us into the narrow, tragic world of Spider by utilizing a performance by one of the world’s finest actors.

Fiennes is rightly considered a great actor, best known for his work in Oscar-winning films like Schindler’s List and The English Patient and as Voldemort in the Harry Potter series and. While Fiennes is reliably good across genres, including in comedic roles in films like The Grand Budapest Hotel and Hail Caesar!, in Spider he creates one of his greatest dramatic performances. He disappears into the role, not with makeup and grand costumes, but through the painful memories he reveals through his movements. While Cronenberg is often remembered for the visceral and philosophical aspects of his films, Spider is an example of how good Cronenberg is with actors, and how he brings out the best in his performers, even actors like Jeremy Irons, and here, Fiennes, who have a substantial body of work to their name.

In Spider, the titular character is a man who has been released from a psychiatric facility and finds lodging in a halfway home for the mentally ill. The home is governed over by Mrs. Wilkinson, a stern but motherly figure played by Lynn Redgrave. Here, Spider attempts to reintegrate into society and develop the skills he needs to cope with his challenges. However, the halfway home also happens to be in the same East London neighbourhood that Spider grew up in during the 1950s, across from a huge gasworks factory and along the grimy banks of the Thames. The reimersion in his old neighbourhood is not best for Spider, and slowly we are drawn into his memories of his childhood, with his angelic mother (Miranda Richardson) and angry, working-class father (Gabriel Byrne).

In this sense, the literary conceit of Spider is similar to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, with the physical locale of the neighbourhood acting as the involuntary memory prompt that the madeleine cookie did in Proust. Visually, Cronenberg frames the memories through the subjectivity of Spider by having him start to see events from his past on the street. It takes the viewer some time to realize that what we are seeing are his memories. The adult Spider is often viewed in the scene, as an in-frame observer. Rather than putting us in the perspective of the remembering view, it physically reconstructs the memory more akin to the presentation of memory in a film like Bergman’s Wild Strawberries or many of the film versions of A Christmas Carol, viewing his past rather than being fully immersed in reexperiencing it.

In the memory scenes we discover that Spider’s father, Bill Cleg, is an unhappy man, angry that Spider doesn’t seem to show any interest in friendships with other children or much interest in anything outside the home, despite approaching pubescent age, early signs of Spider’s potential schizophrenic diagnosis. A precipitous moment occurs one evening when Spider views his father and mother leaving for the evening and sees his father push his mother up against the garden gate to kiss her forcefully. His confusion at the sexual nature of his parent’s relationship further precipitates a change in his world.

One evening Spider’s mother sends him down to the pub to fetch his father, and Spider is taunted by a group of prostitutes, one of whom exposes her breast to him. This becomes linked, in Spider’s mind and the film’s structure, to the sexual expression of his parents. After this, we see his father visit the prostitute, Yvonne, who is also played by Miranda Richardson; the dual casting of “the mother and the whore” is a key element of the film, and Richardson is masterful at not only physically distinguishing the two characters, but making them truly seem like separate people. One night he dailies too long and his wife seeks him out at the pub, but stumbles across her husband and Yvonne having sex in a garden shed nearby. Bill kills Mrs. Cleg with a shovel and buries her in the garden, at which point he brings Yvonne home to “replace” his wife. Spider, however, remains unconvinced by this replacement and conspires to kill the impostor.

The film moves back and forth between Spider’s recollections and his increasingly erratic behaviour at the boarding house. Spider begins to string up his room with a series of wires and strings, like a web, which we eventually discover is how he triggered the gas in the stove that killed his mother/Yvonne. It’s a literalization of the web of connections that Spider’s schizophrenic mind creates between the various individuals in his life. The film ends with Spider beginning to view the maternal Mrs. Wilkinson as his mother/Yvonne, and seemingly preparing to kill her before he is returned to the care of the hospital.

In Spider, the truth of the story is hardly in doubt, even if it is never entirely spelled out for the viewer. After Yvonne is gassed by Spider, the final shot of Bill Cleg cradling her body in the street and calling out for help shows Spider’s mother in his arms. “Yvonne” is a projection of Spider’s inability to handle the sexual nature of his parents’ relationship, and an outcome of his psychological abuse at the hands of his father.

What is particularly Cronenbergesque about the story of Spider is its interest in the human inability to deal with our biological and sexual nature, and the way this has real effects on our mental life. So many of Cronenberg’s films are about individuals whose sexual desires are seen as deviant or pathological, being expressed in the sadomasochism of Videodrome or the technophilia of Crash or eXistenZ. Cronenberg’s films express these as natural expressions or outgrowths of the environments the characters inhabit: the alienated world of late-twentieth century North America. In Spider, Cronenberg seems to suggest that such expressions are not dependent on technology as we often think of it and have always been with us. Rather, they are expressions of our attempts to map our psychology and behaviour onto our environments. In this way, Spider is more in keeping with the whole body of Cronenberg’s cinema than it might seem.

Schizophrenia becomes understood as a complete inability to comprehend reality. Spider has an inability to process his relationship with his mother after witnessing her sexual nature with his father. But it’s not suggesting that this caused his mental breakdown, rather that its the object of his emotional flattening and inability to organize his thought. The web is symbolic of both the interconnectedness and trap of his thinking. Spider represents a turn toward the explicitly Freudian that would culminate in Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, a film specifically about Freud himself.

The most Freudian aspect of the film is in the expression of the mother-whore, or Madonna-whore, complex, as Freud called it. Freud suggested that this was a particularly prevalent kind of disfunction, “Where such men love they have no desire and where they desire they cannot love.” Cronenberg literalizes this split in Spider’s conception of his mother, who exhibits both desire and love for him. Richardson manages to distinguish in her performance between the two characters without completely tipping into the realm of caricature, even if the heightened nature of the characters is a function of Spider’s perception.

In Spider, the main character’s mental illness distorts his perception of reality, but it also literalizes what Spider himself cannot comprehend: the fact that his mother had different roles for him and his father. His father’s anger and despair, rooted in the economic destitution of post-war Britain, exacerbates Spider’s condition.

Perhaps it’s too easy to read Spider as an exploration of a Freudian complex in the specifics of the confused cognitive processes of a schizophrenic. Taken in the context of Cronenberg’s approach to perception in his films and the way he roots human pathologies in our evolutionary and biological nature, I believe that one can have more sympathy for Spider than one might otherwise. Rather than a debased or abject person, his delusions are simply one way of processing the forces of the world that we don’t understand.

What is remarkable about Spider in terms of its form is the way that its narrow focus and cinematography expresses so elegantly Spider’s own small world. His psychosis literally shrinks his world to a handful of people whom he then projects onto others. Cronenberg makes this very cinematic through his double-casting and the performances he gets out of his actors. It’s the work of a director very sure of himself, though content with working on a small canvas.

While Spider is more historically and psychologically “grounded” than most of Cronenberg’s previous films, it fits neatly into his preoccupations. It’s no less an accomplishment than the films that preceded or followed it. Spider is an important film that would lead to the expanding of Cronenberg’s films beyond where they had been at that point. It’s a small and intimate film, but no less powerful and affecting.

8 out of 10

Spider (2002, Canada/UK)

Directed by David Cronenberg; screenplay by Patrick McGrath, based on the novel by the same; starring Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, Lynn Redgrave, Bradley Hall, John Neville.