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Spider

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From the DVD’s back-cover blurb:

Spider (Ralph Fiennes) has been allowed a second chance at life after a long stay in a mental institution and sent to a halfway house under the stern watch of Mrs. Ilkenson (Lynn Redgrave.)

Revisiting his old neighborhood reawakens memories of his where his mother (Miranda Richardson) and his father (Gabriel Byrne) raised him. He soon begins to uncover the real truth shifting seamlessly back and forth between the tragic events that polarized a boy’s adolescence to the shell of a man enduring the surreal plausible reality of today.

It’s a pretty good summary of the film except for two details, the first minor and the second major:

  1. Mrs. Ilkenson should be Mrs. Wilkinson, and I’m not sure why a mistake like this could be made, given the credits and how Wilkinson is a far more common surname than Ilkenson. Like I said though, this is only minor.
  2. The description of Spider’s process of “uncover[ing] the real truth” provides an image of a traditionally active protagonist, but the title character is most definitely not one of those, floating as he does through most of the film’s running time.

This perhaps is why so many people find Spider “boring.” I personally found it quite gripping, not despite but because of the languid pacing of the film.

It’s also neither contemplative nor meditative in the fashion of such films as that of, say, Krzysztof Kieslowski; Spider’s mental illness, after all, results in his lacking the capacity for orderly contemplation and meditation.

Instead, it’s the collective efforts of cast and crew guided by David Cronenberg, along with the participation they demand from the viewer, that performs this work of reflection in a more metaphorical and almost-poetic sense.

Above and beyond flawless performances from a cast that also includes John Neville (who has done supporting work in Little Women and The Fifth Element, but is perhaps best known for playing the Well-Manicured Man of The X-Files as well as the title character in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) is Cronenberg’s characteristically clinical direction.

I’d go so far as to call it elegant, despite it seeming inappropriate for this film’s visuals. He’s aided by the work of a few constant collaborators:

  • Composer Howard Shore’s mournful yet understated score, in a style closer to his work in two other films about insanity: Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs, aside from most of Cronenberg’s other films.
  • For those only familiar with the musical gravitas he provides in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, it would be best to seek out those films to show you why I consider him one of my favorite film composers, perhaps second only to Carter Burwell. He’s also done some “middle-ground” work for Ed Wood, High Fidelity, and That Thing You Do!, which only highlight his range.

  • Editor Ronald Sanders’s surgical precision in cutting a film that shifts from past to present while simultaneously blending the two in a more impressionistic but no less effective way than the poster design below.
  • (The blending of past and present has to do with several scenes in which the adult Spider appears in the frame–or a neighboring one–with the boy Spider for most of the film’s “flashbacks.” It’s worth noting how it is the former who follows the cues of the latter quite often in the film, subtly expressing the way mental illness makes one feel helpless and incapacitated.)

  • Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky‘s images of decrepitude and decay, both architectural and psychological, in a nearly monochromatic palette that I would call earthy, if it wasn’t so (sub)urban.

    Suschitzky, as is usually the case with his work for Cronenberg, pulls off quite a coup with shots that seem dead and cold and yet simmering with a repressed and tense undercurrent of menace and dread. The cinematography of Spider strikes me as quite an accurate portrayal of the thematics of the literary Gothic.

When I first saw this film, I was afraid I would sorely miss Carol Spier’s production design and how it brilliantly meshes with Cronenberg’s films, but Andrew Sanders presents himself as more-than-adequate to the task.

It’s an excellent film, and I’m willing to call it a perfect one, at least in its conjunction of form and content. Nevertheless, like so many films I love, it’s not something I can easily recommend to just about anyone, even while I consider it in such superlative terms. That said, if you read through this and find yourself interested, you could do so much worse than indulging that curiosity.

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  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks AAJT, very nice review and I, for one, am certainly intrigued.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    Andrew, great review. I myself have no excuse for not checking out Spider yet. I just never got round to it i guess. And i kinda think it might something of a severe downer, which is no judgement on how good it might be, but just a way of saying sometimes i need to be in the mood for such “weighty” fare. Cronenberg is one of my favourite directors, and yet not one that instantly comes to mind when someone asks me “hey, the duke, how are the best folks what ever pointed the cameras?”
    Good stuff, and an incentive to check out this flick what i might have been unwittingly avoiding.

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/eldritch00 Andrew

    Thanks, folks. Hope you enjoy the film as much as I do, if “enjoy” is the right term to use. *grins*

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/eldritch00 Andrew

    And yes, it’s quite a “downer,” though I was also left with a sense of awe at Cronenberg’s direction. While I started watching his films for the grue, this one really shows how he can get under your skin and disturb you without necessarily going to the admittedly fun excesses of, say, Scanners.

    Find the proper mood, by all means, but as someone who holds Cronenberg in high esteem, I believe you’ll find this quite a wonderful addition to his work.