film review: Spider ***

Spider is a perfect film for the chronically depressed moviegoer nursing a fetish for the mentally ill. Its main subject is a man named Spider, played with a sort of withdrawn brilliance by Ralph Fiennes (Schindler’s List), who stumbles and mumbles through a story of perplexing mystery and heavy drama. The result is a movie exercising a sense of mood and timing that is entirely original.

Spider begins the film by checking into some kind of halfway house for the mentally distraught. His disorder is not immediately revealed, but it’s obvious that he has one, with a demeanor that mirrors an overly neurotic Woody Allen. Fiennes is the rare actor who can get away with having no understandable dialogue throughout an entire film and still give a superb, but more importantly, unpretentious performance.

A strict older woman runs the halfway house and this provides the work’s underlining setting and relationship. The only other place Spider visits is his surreal past, visualized by director David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone, Scanners) as a creepy place where the modern day Spider is a peeping Tom who observes his younger self and his troubled parents.

The idea is similar to “A Christmas Carol,” wherein the characters from the past don’t notice the main character’s eerie presence. A logical problem with these flashbacks is that Spider often follows his parents, played by Miranda Richardson (The Crying Game) and Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects), on their journeys away from the younger version of himself. Careful, sober viewers will detect that Spider doesn’t really know what occurred in these scenes, and can only imagine them. For those confused by the film, this is the key to placing together the plotline.

Nothing else really happens. Spider slips between his present residence in the halfway house and his past in a small, claustrophobic home. Newcomer Bradley Hall, whose ghostly white skin and delicate frame complement an impressive performance, plays the younger Spider. The character’s deep psychological complexity, as both child and adult, is the lingering accomplishment of the film.

Unlike A Beautiful Mind, Spider is unafraid to be consumed by the uneasy world of mental illness, obviously at the cost of entertainment. The film’s colors are grayed and worn, much like the minds of the men in the halfway house, and Cronenberg is certainly a master storyteller, even if, on the surface there’s not much of a story to tell.

The ending of Spider delivers the realization that’s been so carefully plotted from the first few minutes, and it’s satisfying enough to justify the extensive set up. Still, it’s so buried in depressed and repressed memories that it’ll leave many viewers thinking the film ends abruptly.
See Spider for its “case study” acting, Cronenberg’s haunting direction, and a plotline that challenges until the end, something not said for most of today’s releases. But if you and your date are in the mood for “lighter” mental illness fare, skip Spider and go rent the way funnier Tom Cruise flick Rain Man.

Shawn Wines can be reached at