`Spider' is tangled web

April 18, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Spider aims to be a mind-bending, heart-shriveling blend of Freud and Kafka. But in the playing it's like an academic deconstruction of Sir Walter Scott's "Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive."

The movie is named for Dennis Clegg, whose mother called him "Spider" even before he started draping strands of rope and cord across his bedroom. He loved to hear her reminisce about her days as a country girl, catching sight of fresh spider webs in branches "like clouds of fine muslin" that turned into "shining wheels" as she got closer. Her favorite memory was of finding tiny silken spider egg bags.

As Spider puts it in Patrick McGrath's first-person novel (McGrath also wrote the screenplay), "It was the ending of the story that I loved best: What happened to the spider, I'd say. My mother would sigh. When she's finished [she said] she just crawls off to her hole without a backward glance. For her work is done, she has no silk left, she's all dried up and empty. She just crawls away and dies."

Spider thinks "just crawl away and die" is what his hard-drinking plumber father (Gabriel Byrne) felt his mom should do after she had the boy. When the adult Spider (Ralph Fiennes), a semi-functioning schizophrenic, returns from an asylum to a halfway house in his old London neighborhood, he starts to reconstruct the defining trauma of his childhood.

Fiennes manfully embodies Spider as a mumbling, shambling voyeur of his own existence. His performance is artfully impenetrable, like a wall with carefully placed chinks in it. As Spider follows every thread of deception to the mystery at the core, including one leading to a pub-crawling tart and another to a murder, the director, David Cronenberg, keeps emphasizing his unreliability as a guide, until just who is caught in his web of guilt becomes increasingly mysterious.

At least that's the plan. Unfortunately, director Cronenberg is too determined to be "adult," disciplined and minimalist: the opposite of the flamboyant image-maker who directed the harrowing 1986 The Fly. Without the book's first-person narration, all an audience can do is study Spider for clues to what's in his brain as he drifts in and out of flashbacks.

Unlike the strong clear prose of McGrath's novel, which treats sick feelings as palpable toxins and contains nightmare visions like "a skeleton housing some sleek, seal-like creature," Cronenberg doesn't externalize Spider's inner demons beyond acting out Spider's version of his kitchen-sink life story.

With so little to occupy eyes and minds, viewers have too much time to ponder why Miranda Richardson, who plays the mother, takes over the role of the tart and ends up appropriating the halfway house's matron from Lynn Redgrave. No slam on the actress - she's remarkable as all three - but because her scenes unfold in Spider's head, it's obvious his dad isn't the only one with a segmented view of womanhood.

Spider has been evocatively photographed by Cronenberg's longtime collaborator Peter Suschitzky. As a demonstration of craft, it hints at their previous mastery. They wring menace out of sights as familiar and real as a gasworks. Still, the only emotion the movie generates is a cold creepiness. Cronenberg doesn't treat mental illness as sentimentally as Rain Man did. By the movie's end, however, I wished Spider had gotten more rapport going with John Neville as a fellow asylum inmate, a colorful mixture of the authoritative and the fearful.

Spider as a character is a fantasizing detective, but the movie is no Singing Detective (the high-water mark of the sub-genre). This film rarely rises above a murmur.

Spider

Starring Ralph Fiennes

Directed by David Cronenberg

Rated R

Released by Sony Classics

Time 96 minutes

SUN SCORE * *

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