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The Cronenberg Chronicle-Phase Four: Spider (2002)

It opens with an extraordinary scene of people disembarking a train at a station. The camera glides in through all the hustle and bustle as we watch each car empty out its occupants. The crowd thins out to almost nothing until we meet the slow-moving “Spider”, purposefully climbing from the car onto the platform—as if descending from a web. The character of Dennis “Spider” Cleg, as played in a beautifully nuanced performance by Ralph Fiennes, is marvelously defined in these initial moments. The expert work of Cronenberg’s usual team of cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, editor Ronald Sanders and costume designing sister Denise Cronenberg is of paramount importance to this introduction. A frayed cuff, a focus of a man fumbling at some sort of bag that he stores beneath his waistband, a lighted train station that suddenly seems to be awash in assorted browns and grays. Upon watching “Spider” in full for the first time in a number of years, I wondered if maybe I had given my A+ rating to Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” a little too hastily. Maybe this 2002 release was really his finest achievement of the past two decades. I wager it would have a number of supporters. “Spider” is a meticulous study of the fragility of a young boy’s mind. His misunderstanding of human sexuality opens his life up to a series of tragic events. You may not gather all of this on an initial viewing and the film requires an undeniable high degree of patience from the uninitiated. The rewards are vast by film’s end, however, and you will quickly find yourself retracing the steps. You may think that you are ahead of the curve at points throughout, only to find that you just may have been mistaken. It contains an acting tour-de-force from Mr. Fiennes as he mumbles and shambles his way throughout the 98 minute run-time. You’ll barely understand a word he says—but it doesn’t matter. “Spider” communicates through the intensity of his actions, and what he’s seeing more than what he’s saying. The movie “Spider” is among the least commercial of David’s films and finds him in full auteurist mode. It’s an astonishing psychological study.               Dennis “Spider” Cleg is returning to his boyhood home after an apparently long spell in an institution. He is supposedly cured just enough(barely it seems)to enter a halfway house run by a Mrs. Wilkinson(Lynn Redgrave). It isn’t very long before Dennis is visiting his old haunts and apparently imagining or reliving his childhood days. It is here that we are introduced to his dad, Bill(Gabriel Byrne), and mum, Mrs. Cleg(an incredible Miranda Richardson, who embodies three roles within the film due to Spider’s perceptions and hallucinations). Spider doesn’t appear to have any friends, and he’s a quiet and thoughtful boy who is very close to his mum. One evening, Spider is sent down to the local pub to fetch his pop for dinner. It appears that he has done this before. As we watch these snippets from Spider’s childhood, we are always aware of the adult Spider(Fiennes)idling by and glimpsing the scenes from his past unfold as if he is actually back in time. The accuracy of his memory will eventually come into play, but it seems clear that while at the bar, a local tart flashes her boob to the ten-year-old lad(Spider as a boy is played by Bradley Hall). We also witness Spider being upset by his father giving his mother a brief, passionate grope in an alleyway as they head for a night on the town. But the reserved Mrs. Cleg doesn’t appear comfortable with the pub scene or interested in having more than one drink. So, Mr. Cleg quickly becomes interested in that beer-swilling tart at the bar with her ample cleavage and amorous sexuality. Yvonne(also Ms. Richardson)is her name and soon she and Mr. Cleg embark on a torrid affair. When Mrs. Cleg eventually investigates her now perpetually absent husband’s whereabouts, she barges in on Bill and Yvonne having sex. Bill’s drunken, passionate response is to rap her in the head with a shovel—killing her almost instantly. Mrs. Cleg is stealthily buried in a garden, and Bill moves in Yvonne—who rapidly makes some clumsy attempts to act as mother to Spider.               There is an awful lot of rich imagery in “Spider”, that doesn’t have its full weight hit until much later on. Broken glass that resembles a web. Spider attempting to complete puzzles at a table in the halfway house’s rec room. Strings that are tied web-like throughout the adult Spider’s room and also in his bedroom as a child. The gasworks…constant visions and reminders of the gasworks.There is also Spider’s constant muttering and scribbling in a pad as he goes on an inner journey of self-discovery. Why is Miranda Richardson playing two, and then eventually three roles? And just when you think you’ve got it, you may just end up saying to yourself “not so fast”. I also like the possibility of the old man Terrence(John Neville), who is Spider’s almost constant companion at the halfway house, being an older version of Spider himself. Terrence would then be watching the 40-year-old Spider as that Spider voyeurs the 10-year-old one. Fascinating stuff. There is almost zero “body-horror” to be had in this work based on a novel by Patrick McGrath. We spend a large serving of the film in the recesses of Spider’s mind. It’s a haunted place and it’s a haunting work. This was the first time that Cronenberg abandoned his “body-horror” theme in his career(well, except for maybe 1979’s car movie, “Fast Company”)and he pulls off a cerebral winner with his customary aplomb. “Spider” may seem daunting at first if you are a Mr. C newcomer, but it’s a richly rewarding masterstroke from a man with a career full of them. And the more I tackle it, the more I ponder as to whether it is indeed his best of the decade. It’s a puzzle wrapped in a web that’s inside of a mind. And I wanted to watch it again almost as soon as it was over.     Grade:  A

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8 comments on “The Cronenberg Chronicle-Phase Four: Spider (2002)

  1. Great post, I’ve been meaning to watch this for ages but haven’t had the chance. Thanks for the reminder

  2. You’re quite welcome, Vinnie—and thanks for reading. Check in again after you’ve watched it and share your thoughts! ML

  3. Thank you for the compliment, Vinnie. I have checked out your blog, and I think your device of asking questions to start a topic thread is a terrific one! I’ve added your blog to my reader, and I’ll definitely return to it to contribute to the fun. ML

  4. I recenlty watched this one and reviewed it on my blog.

  5. I will certainly read your review, Vinnie. ML

  6. […] The Cronenberg Chronicle – Phase Four: Spider (2002) (reviewedbymarkleonard.wordpress.com) […]

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