“Based on a novel by Patrick McGrath, it’s an unsettling and studied (read: extremely slow) examination of mental illness that challenges viewers by presenting its story through the eyes of a seriously disturbed schizophrenic. Watching it, you may wonder if someone slipped a psychotropic drug or three in with your gummy bears…”
Director David Cronenberg’s latest, Spider, will likely polarize audiences in the same way many of his previous love ‘em-or-hate ‘em films have. Based on a novel by Patrick McGrath, it’s an unsettling and studied (read: extremely slow) examination of mental illness that challenges viewers by presenting its story through the eyes of a seriously disturbed schizophrenic. Watching it, you may wonder if someone slipped a psychotropic drug or three in with your gummy bears.
Upon his release from a psychiatric institution, Dennis “Spider” Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) moves into a gloomy halfway house near his old East End neighborhood. The proximity to his childhood surroundings inevitably leads to visions of the traumas that caused his mental breakdown as a boy. But now, Spider begins to realize that things may not have happened exactly the way he’s been remembering them for twenty-odd years.
Muttering and shuffling in a perpetually disheveled state, Fiennes does an admirable job in an almost non-speaking role that allows for none of the dramatic bravura afforded to Russell Crowe’s loveable schizophrenic in A Beautiful Mind. Better served are Miranda Richardson, who slips into her three dynamic roles with chameleon-like ease, Lynn Redgrave, as a particularly unsympathetic governess, and Gabriel Byrne, as Spider’s gruff but loving father.
Artistically, Cronenberg has created a wonderfully bleak masterpiece. Amid a monochromatic palette of browns and grays, symbolic imagery abounds, from Rorschach-like patterns of peeling paint to a monolithic gas refinery towering figuratively and literally over Spider. The film’s greatest artistic endeavor, however, is also its most problematic: Depicting everything through Spider’s unstable eyes makes for a perplexing viewing experience, as situations, events, and, particularly, people continually morph in a bewildering manner that will undoubtedly put off less resilient viewers. Those hardy enough to see it through are ultimately rewarded, though, as Spider’s disturbing trip down memory lane proves a journey worth taking.