Written by: Patrick McGrath, based on his novel of the same name
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, John Neville, Gabriel Byrne, Bradley Hall
Watching David Cronenberg’s Spider feels like trying to light a fire that just won’t catch. This is perhaps the director’s most blatantlyFreudian film (well, I guess except for his upcoming film about Sigmund Freud) but the result is less insightful than Cronenberg has proven himself to be in the past. There is always a sense that the film might be building towards something, without the satisfaction of any tension or suspense, and the payoff is too weak and slow building to feel worth waiting for.
Spider (Ralph Fiennes) has been released from an institution and is now living in a halfway house in an attempt to enter society in a somewhat functional way. The halfway house is in a part of London where Spider grew up, and his return to this area forces him to relive childhood moments that eventually led to his schizophrenia. Fiennes is incredible to watch as he wanders and babbles, but it is a slog to wait for him to meander his way through the corners of his memory and so little of his behaviour seems attached to anything immediately meaningful that it is difficult not to abandon the film. I did a little reading online about the novel by Patrick McGrath that Spider is based on, and I have learned that Spider is the novel’s narrator and that his unreliability is explicit and plays a large role in the impact of the plot. Cronenberg never makes it clear that Spider’s memories are untrustworthy, choosing instead to leave that revelation for the end but doing so leaves the film feeling hollow; without the suspicion that something is not right, this just feels like watching a man remember his childhood.
Cronenberg’s direction is exceptionally stylish, and the visual aesthetic is very compelling. However, his pacing is poor and the decision to have no narration, or at least suggestion of purpose, leaves the film feeling empty and hardly engaging at all. Nearly all of Cronenberg’s films employ a Freudian mindset, suggesting penis envy, castration, Oedipal desires and otherwise phallic imagery and the grace with which he can utilize such ideas is frequently sublime. In Spider, the Freudian notions at play are so embryonic it is hard to believe they come from the director of Rabid (1977) or Videodrome (1983).
Spider is not a bad film, and in fact it has moments of brilliance. Cronenberg’s composition is effectively alienating and sad, and performances from Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne and John Neville are incredibly powerful. The film lacks in emotional depth and it fails to connect with a viewer, leaving its final reveal feeling under-inflated and disappointing.