This makes the novelist Patrick McGrath a particularly intriguing partner for the filmmaker. Virtually the creator of the neo-Gothic movement, McGraths tales of terror are as gruesomely comic as they are, well, gruesome. Comedy, of course, requires detachment, but McGraths sympathetic identification with his protagonist/victims is beyond question.
And so we have Cronenbergs latest film, Spider, adapted from an early McGrath novel with a screenplay by McGrath himself. The outcome is fairly marvelous, though disturbing.
Some of the disturbance is expected. Spider is a middle-aged man sent out from an asylum to live in a halfway home in his old neighborhood in Londons East End. As youd expect, the return sparks memories of his youth; unfortunately, that youth includes the murder of his mother under mysterious circumstances, and a great deal of sexual upset. Half the movie is the enactment of those memories, as the grown-up Spider (Ralph Fiennes), literally inhabits his past, witnessing himself as a child (Bradley Hall), and his mother (Miranda Richardson, who delivers a miraculous performance) and father (Gabriel Byrne).
Little Spider is a quiet boy and at least passes for normal. But as an adult he is clearly in the throes of schizophrenia: He mumbles to himself; hoards pieces of string, sticks, and paper; and hides valuables in a sock thrust down the front of his pants. His obvious psychosis doesnt keep at least one of the more social boarders (John Neville) from trying to engage him, but the places landlady, Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave), a warden-esque figure, rides him hard.
Cronenberg delves into Spider’s consciousness, experiencing his memories or are they delusions? along with him. As always, there’s a crucial moment when a character’s crisis reaches a high pitch and he plunges into "what" Madness? You can call it that in Spider certainly. But in the past, Cronenberg has not always been so quick to label mangled minds, even destructive ones, as simply mad. In M. Butterfly the critical split between the normal, or at least ordinary, world and personal fantasy occurs when Jeremy Irons awakes in his marriage bed and looks in a mirror. The hoped-for transformation he sees ends up not as madness but an extreme romantic fantasy brought to life.
Spiders transformation is ultimately horrible, but doesnt seem particularly fantastic in Cronenbergs visual vocabulary. Theres no attempt to enter a world of phantasmagoria as in Naked Lunch or eXistenz. True, as we accompany him into the land of his memories, we see that Spiders hallucinations are intact. And his sheer presence in the past is obviously a delusion. But really, the film embraces an only slightly heightened realism embodied by a huge gas tank which looms across the street from Mrs. Wilkinsons halfway house. Its portentous, but plausible.
Though Spiders actions are bizarre, theyre psychiatrically classifiable. Hes a clinical case to an extent and not all the likable. At least not to Cronenberg. Its not that the director trashes Spider. On the contrary, there are passages in the film in which the director twists the sinews of joy and pain in the wretched man, depicting an anatomy of humanity.
But theres something zoological about his perceptions of Spider. Along with his subjectivity his adoption of a characters perspective Cronenberg alternates a rigorous distance. This can be a retreat from a character with whom we once sympathized, but who has become monstrous (The Fly), or a switch in perspective that reveals an authentic, or more authentic, reality (Dead Ringers).
In Spider, Cronenberg is distant early and often. Especially when Spider is alone in his boarding house room, Cronenberg shoots him from a slight elevation that pins poor Spider against the walls. At first, this technique seems merely a mirror of Spiders own sense of entrapment. But it repeats itself throughout the film, as if Spider were an ugly specimen, best kept under glass (the lens) and mounted on felt (the décor).
This attitude seems a matter of leakage more than deliberation. Cronenberg is faced with a distasteful character who has no alternate explanation for his consciousness. Since, within the realm he has established for himself, Cronenberg is a near genius, and since hes working with a gifted collaborator, what turns out to be the essentially limited nature of the material doesnt hamper him too much. Spider is an excellent movie in many, many ways. Unlike other Cronenberg films, though, its not a particularly rich examination of an exceptional persons perception.