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Wednesday, April 2, 2003

To be or not to be real


Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: David Cronenberg
Running time: 98 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

Ever wonder what paranoid schizophrenia would feel like? I don't mean the Russell Crowe/eccentric genius/Nobel Prize-winning kind, but the muttering, jagged, "people cross the street when they see you" type.

News photo
Ralph Fiennes in "Spider"

David Cronenberg -- the Canadian maestro of the disturbing and the bizarre -- takes you there. Although often singled out for his fixation with the grotesque -- the "body horror" of "The Fly," or "Scanners" -- the director's latest film, "Spider," takes its place in a series of Cronenberg movies that explore the line between hallucination and reality. Think of "Videodrome," "Naked Lunch," or "eXisTenZ," and one sees Cronenberg dissecting how mediation -- of the camera, the typewriter, or the virtual-game world -- can create obsessively compelling alternate realities. With "Spider," the director turns his gaze to brain chemistry and childhood traumas.

Based on a novel by Patrick McGrath, "Spider" follows a mentally shattered man trying to piece together his past. Ralph Fiennes plays Dennis Cleg -- childhood nickname "Spider" -- who's being released after 20 years in a mental institution to the relative freedom of life in a halfway house run by the strict Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave).

Like Billy Bob Thornton's character in "Sling Blade," Fiennes' Cleg is a man who's been rehabilitated enough to be set loose on the streets, but yet you could hardly call him cured. He suffers from obsessive-compulsion, whether it's keeping a diary written in indecipherable hieroglyphics (which he still frantically hides from prying eyes) or collecting odd bits of twine and rope with which he fashions intricate, aimless webs. Cleg can barely articulate a sentence, mumbling in a slurred, fragmented way that only occasionally reveals its meaning.

For Fiennes, an actor who's used to expressing himself within well-crafted dialogue (see "Sunshine" or "The English Patient"), this role is indeed a challenge, but one that he rises to: His darting, lowered eyes and apparent confusion make the viewer fixate on what's going on inside his head. The more we see -- as Spider walks the streets of London's East End, revisiting the locations of his childhood trauma -- the creepier his story becomes.

Flashbacks take us back to the murky events of Spider's childhood; his mother, played by Miranda Richardson, is kind and protective, whereas his father, Bill (Gabriel Byrne), is remote and grumpy, spending much of his time at the local pub, where his attentions turn to a floozy named Yvonne.

The alert viewer will note that Yvonne is also played by Miranda Richardson, albeit with almost unrecognizably different speech patterns and looks. Where Spider's mother is calm, considerate and prim, Yvonne is loud-mouthed, trashy and callous -- her shrill, idiotic laugh after Bill has just split his wife's head open with a shovel -- is easily the film's most terrifying moment: It's the sound of pure, utter lack of empathy, an unthinking nihilism.

Is it any wonder poor Spider's a mess? Except of course, that we can't be sure if this memory of parental betrayal and murder is correct, or just another paranoid delusion. Certainly the double-casting of Richardson invites the viewer to consider the latter, that this classic virgin-whore dichotomy is being driven by Spider's own barely sublimated Oedipal desires. Less remarked upon, but no less worthy, is the performance of Bradley Hall as the younger Spider: His intense, yet remote, gaze signal both repressed and harmful intent.

Cronenberg, as he did in "Dead Ringers," is using his characters, not SFX, to give us the chills (although he's not above the occasional Cronenbergian moment, with a bowl of slithering eels served for dinner, or a hand clasping a jagged shard of glass). Some may say that the director is demonizing the mentally ill, given the menacing nature of Spider himself. But move beyond the PC response, and it's clear that Cronenberg's concern is not moralizing, but the notion of how memories can be shaped, constructed, deconstructed, even created to try and explain present-day identity.

Curiously enough, for a film that digs deep into Freudian impulses and subconscious motivations, Cronenberg claims to have never experienced psychotherapy. Then again, with films like "Spider," who needs a therapist when you've got a paying audience? Just as Spider scribbles in his journal and creates his webs of discarded string, Cronenberg releases his demons on the screen. Perhaps that's why he can say, with a straight face, "I'm the most stable and well-adjusted person I know."

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