David Cronenberg’s particular genius is getting inside our deepest, most primal fears, the ones that exist in the id and are impervious to any assuaging from the land of logic. Hence in RABID, Marilyn Chambers grows something suspiciously phallic in a most unexpected place, in VIDEODROME, our televisions turn on us, and in DEAD RINGERS, twin gynecologists create instruments of examination that still give most of the women I know nightmares. His latest film, SPIDER, may do for men what DEAD RINGERS did for women. Its exploration of madness, in this case schizophrenia, is rife with sexuality of a disturbingly Oedipal nature.
At the beginning of SPIDER, a scruffy, distracted Spider, in the person of Ralph Fiennes, steps off a train, stands for a moment in bemused wonder as the crowded platform gradually dissipates, and then reaches suggestively into the front of his pants. He’s not fishing for what you think. Instead, he pulls out an old sock that he uses as a wallet, retrieves an address, and then, with all the apparent sentience of a sunflower, begins his voyage of discovery and ours as he sets off to a halfway house after being judged almost sane by the asylum where he’s resided until now.
It’s a bait and switch with a twist, in that Spider’s underlying problem, the one that triggered his schizophrenia and remains as its manifestation. At that most tender of ages, when a boy’s hormones begin to surge in anticipation of puberty, Spider sees several things that he can’t cope with, his parents taking an amorous romp in the garden, his mother preening in front of a mirror wearing a slinkier-than-usual slip, and a prostitute flashes him and then laughs at his reactions. It’s his inability to face a world of sexuality in others and, especially the one burgeoning within, that keeps him imprisoned in a fantasy world where things make more sense, at least to him.
Cronenberg begins the film from our point of view, showing us Spider for the shambling wreck that he is, all mumbling and fear, then, slowly, he takes us inside Spider’s mind. In a beautifully drawn moment, he has Spider in the present stumble on his childhood home, (or is it we may well wonder?). He draws near and pulls aside a lace curtain aside, lifting the veil as it were into his mind. We watch the scene within of him as a child (Bradley Hall in a spookily intense performance) talking with his beloved mother and from here we watch Spider’s memories come to life as he relives what happened so long ago when his world crumbled along with his mind. It is significant that in these first few moments, adult Spider mumbles the words his younger self will then speak. And throughout, Spider shares scenes with his memories, huddled in a corner, hunching against a wall, bunching himself up to be a small as possible as he watches everything with melancholy eyes. This is memory reflected through a broken mind and true only for Spider. But there are moments that show a tenuous hold on reality, as when Spider’s long-suffering father played with manly bemusement by Gabriel Byrne, asks Spider what’s wrong with him. The truth of his son’s condition is something he can’t fathom any more than Spider’s mind can fathom reality. Cronenberg emphasizes the disjointed nature of the action and the relationships with dull browns and dirty grays shown with lighting that doesn’t so much illuminate as cast baleful shadows. He also keeps the camera angles subtly off kilter and surrounds his characters with odd corners and looming ceilings. Most strikingly is his restraint in the blood and gore department. Theres very little, the horror, and theres plenty, comes from the pervasive juxtaposition of madness and sanity, trying to distinguish, like Spider, one from the other.
A film like this, for all the filmmaker’s artistry, stands or falls on the performances. Fiennes has perfected the thousand-mile stare and the spurts of manic obsession that characterize Spider’s brand of madness. Lynne Redgrave is ominously brittle as the keeper of Spider’s halfway house. As Spider’s fellow resident, John Neville strikes an oddly gentle note with an obsession for tales of unusual and painful deaths. But it is Miranda Richardson who delivers a tour de force playing three distinctly different characters, the limp housewife who is Spider’s mother, a sleazy whore who tempts his father, and one that I would be remiss to give away. She delivers performances of such detailed realization that it takes several minutes to realize that it is her in another incarnation. This is acting at its finest and the tragedy is that Oscar’s short memory will probably have forgotten it by the time next year’s awards are handed out.
In Spider’s world, people’s identities change and merge. Mothers become prostitutes, fathers become murderers and revenge becomes an obsession with consequences in the real world. Or at least the reality most of us agree on. And that is what, ultimately, is so disturbing about this film. Cronenberg charts with starkly minute detail the fragility of sanity and, even more disconcertingly, the fragile nature of reality. Spider’s world is as real to him as ours is to us, and much more orderly in that it never changes and it never requires him to change or face anything new. You can’t tell me that on some level, that’s not mighty tempting.