Monday, 28 July 2008


David Cronenberg has never been one to shy away from a challenge. After making his name in the 1980s with a series of lurid, confrontational ‘body horror’ movies such as Videodrome, Scanners and The Fly (recently turned into an opera), he spent much of the subsequent decade tackling big-screen literary adaptations. He took William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch and J.G. Ballard’s Crash, two books widely considered to be unfilmable, and made a couple of controversial but loyal and generally well-received movies out of them. In more recent years, the relatively mainstream A History of Violence and Eastern Promises have prompted a critical reappraisal of his talents, and it seems that, after more than three decades of movie-making, his career is as vibrant and exciting as ever.

Spider was the first feature film Cronenberg made after the turn of the millenium. It is another literary adaptation, based on the novel by Patrick McGrath (who also wrote the script), but it is in many senses an exception in the director’s oeuvre. The film follows the experiences of a disturbed man, nicknamed ‘Spider’ by his mother, after his release from the mental hospital that has seemingly been his home since childhood. He returns to the area in which he grew up and attempts to piece together the story of his original descent into madness from his imperfect memories of the surrounding events. Thus, much of the on-screen action consists of reenactments of past events, which Spider experiences as a deeply involved but seemingly powerless witness. Of course, this effect is an illusion: everything that happens comes from inside his head, and it is the uncertainty of what is real memory and what is fantasy that generates the film’s overall dramatic tension. There is a twist, of sorts, but there is no sudden ‘a-ha’ moment of pieces slipping into place, as in films like The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense. Rather, the narrative unfolds with a tortured inevitability: any suspension is wishful thinking on the part of the viewer.

Cronenberg’s treatment of the material is uncharacteristically low-key, even by the standards of his subsequent work. His respect for the story and his keen sense of the proper way to tell it is clear throughout, but there is never any feeling of worthiness about the proceedings. Rather, an effect of acute realism is achieved, which makes the story all the more engrossing and ultimately harrowing. Ralph Fiennes delivers a quietly powerful performance as the eponymous protagonist, a man who is damaged beyond repair and who scarcely acknowledges his immediate surroundings. Despite the fact that he has very little dialogue (besides an almost constant stream of unintelligible muttering), his portrayal is richly detailed and highly sympathetic. Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson are also excellent and understated (although that word sounds a little too much like a pejorative) as Spider’s parents, who are depicted in markedly different ways as the story progresses.

All in all, Spider is a frighteningly convincing tragedy, and an insightful meditation on the self-perpetuating power of madness and its capacity to destroy a person completely. Considering that the themes of delusion and self-destruction are not a million miles from those of Cronenberg’s notorious early works, it is particularly gratifying to see him approach them with such a different attitude. It may not be his most outrageous or his most prestigious film, but Spider will surely live on as a testament to his versatility and talent.

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