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Caught in the web


Over the course of some 30-odd years, David Cronenberg has displayed a highly individual (and quite appropriate) penchant for the bizarre in a number of memorable, and even stylish, horror films. His peculiar combination of the mechanical and the biological distinguishes his work from that of most of his fellow toilers in the dark and bloody fields of shock and gore. Such titles as Videodrome, Dead Ringers, The Fly, and the entirely weird eXistenZ --- not all of them grand artistic successes --- suggest the qualities that differentiate his movies from, say, all those endless celebrations of Halloween, the months of Friday the 13ths, and the endless Nightmares on Elm Street.

            Given the director's track record, the latest Cronenberg film, Spider, should promise his fans something special (even, perhaps --- judging by the title, at least --- some connection with The Fly). But, in fact, the new movie represents a surprising departure from his usual style and content. A small, dark, understated work, Spider (scheduled to open at the Little in early May) examines the interior of one character's mind, telling a sad, hopeless story of childhood and loss. The movie employs none of Cronenberg's typical biotechnology. There are no special effects and no monsters. As a result, Spider offers almost nothing in the way of shocks, frights, and thrills.

            The movie concentrates on a single character, a mentally disturbed man named Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes); and one small story, the exploration of Cleg's memories. Apparently suffering from schizophrenia, Cleg resides in a bleak London halfway house administered by the strict Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave), but spends his days walking the squalid local streets and, more importantly, wandering through the labyrinth of his troubled psyche.

            As he roams the neighborhood, Cleg repeatedly registers a number of objects, structures, signs, pictures, and so forth, that recur throughout the film, each gradually accruing a particular place and meaning in the jigsaw puzzle of his mind. He apparently peeps through the window of the modest home of a working-class family --- wife (Miranda Richardson), husband (Gabriel Byrne), and a 10-year-old boy (Bradley Hall), nicknamed Spider by his mother. When Cleg enters the family's home and follows the individual members everywhere, focusing especially on Spider, we realize that the characters all constitute fantasies, inventions of his disturbed imagination.

            As the family's drab, commonplace story unfolds, the picture both confuses and clarifies their identity and Cleg's relationship to their life. He identifies with young Spider because, in fact, Spider is his younger self, and Richardson and Byrne are his parents. He does not eavesdrop on their conversations or spy on their activities, but constructs them all out of his own past --- spying, in effect, on his own life, his own childhood.

            As the picture's puzzle gradually emerges from the mists of Cleg's memory, the background of his insanity also coalesces into a meaningful configuration, allowing us some understanding of his condition and, perhaps, its causes. His mother's story of spiders and their webs, Spider's own fascination with weaving patterns from string, and the web-like shapes of various objects all form a coherent shape to explain the truth about the catastrophe that obsesses Cleg/Spider. That truth generates a series of metamorphoses that suggest the curious lucidity of lunacy, the paradoxical clarity of a deranged mind following its own particular logic.

            With its stringent control and absolute concentration on its small cast and drab locations, Spider displays an impressive unity and a remarkable restraint. It never strays from its subject, never cheats on its characters and story, and for all its bleakness and austerity, it maintains an admirable integrity in its purely visual narrative.

            Though based on a novel (by its screenwriter, Patrick McGrath), and somewhat indebted to the works of writers like Henry James and Graham Greene, the movie never turns into the sort of "literary" narrative that dooms so many high-minded films. The circumstances of its world and the lives of its characters demand a concomitant restraint by the actors, who demonstrate the uniform level of excellence typical of British actors. From the least important part all the way up to the protagonist, the cast behave with complete conviction, so that we, along with Cleg, sometimes feel as though we are spying on their lives.

            Spider provides a remarkable vehicle for Ralph Fiennes, who immerses himself entirely in the part of Dennis Cleg. Buried within himself, uncertain in his movements, shrinking from human contact, mumbling unintelligibly --- he may not utter one complete sentence in the whole movie --- the romantic hero of The English Patient, the angry writer of The End of the Affair now looks unclean, frightened, and completely lost, a pathetic victim of his own sad thoughts and deranged perceptions. Fiennes suits the form and content of the movie perfectly, matching an avoidance of melodrama with an absolute commitment to his character. Like the film, his performance constitutes something of a tour de force.

Spider, starring Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, John Neville, Bradley Hall, Lynn Redgrave, Gary Reineke, Tara Ellis; based on the novel by Patrick McGrath; written by Patrick McGrath; directed by David Cronenberg.

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