David Cronenberg’s obsessions with multidimensional reality, warped perceptions and the dark recesses of the mind come together in a mesmerizing fashion in “Spider,” an unsettling psycho-chiller about a profoundly disturbed man confronting his past. Adapted by British author Patrick McGrath from his 1990 novel, this slow but brilliantly sustained journey into madness is fronted by a remarkable performance from Ralph Fiennes and superb backup from Miranda Richardson in a triple role. The director’s customarily bizarre detours are put aside here for psychological drama that’s equally complex but both more straightforward and more coherent than Cronenberg’s most recent works, “Crash” and “eXistenZ.” That said, this is decidedly grim material no doubt destined for a very limited public.
While the novel was set in the 1930s and ’50s, McGrath’s adaptation moves the action forward to London’s working class East End in the 1960s and ’80s. However, given that it takes place largely in the protagonist’s troubled mind and distorted memory, this is an unpopulated, almost Dickensian London. The film inhabits a dank and grimy, seamless world of austere brick lanes, murky canals, ugly industrial structures, overgrown allotments and shabby interiors. In this context, a rare glimpse of color, of contemporary detail or of people existing outside the narrow confines of the protagonist’s direct experience represent jarring reminders of his drastic remove from reality.
Released after a long stint in a mental institution and placed in a halfway house not far from the East End streets where he grew up, Spider (Fiennes) is a withdrawn, muttering shell of a man, fearful, furtive and paranoid. He manages to coexist in the place and communicate on a basic level with other patients such as gentlemanly, erudite Terrence (John Neville) and sex-obsessed Freddy (Gary Reineke), who claims he gets lascivious proposals in letters from Sophia Loren.
But Spider is deeply suspicious of Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave), the stern businesslike woman who runs the house. Also unnerving for him is the monstrous presence of the gasworks that dominates the neighborhood, provoking in him an intense fear of gas leaks from his radiator and from his skin.
As he begins wandering the streets, scenes from his childhood return clearly to his mind. Recalling conversations word for word, he looks in — at first from a distance then up close and unseen — on his younger self (Bradley Hall) with his gruff father Bill (Gabriel Byrne) and loving mother (Richardson), who beguiles him with descriptions of the beauty of spiders and their webs. These recollections are fueled by a notebook of obsessively scribbled hieroglyphics, an arcane, invented language Spider appears to comprehend, referring to and updating his notes with every visit to the past.
Turning point in the fragile child’s life comes when he enters the neighborhood pub to summon his father to dinner and encounters three boozy, loud-mouthed tarts. One of them in particular, Yvonne (played initially by Alison Egan and later by Richardson), gradually assumes the face of his mother, albeit with a mouthful of ugly black-rimmed teeth. Convinced his father is having an affair with Yvonne, Spider relives his mother’s discovery of them having sex in an allotment shack, resulting in Bill brutally murdering his wife and burying her in the vegetable patch. Spider then recoils from both parents as Bill simply replaces his mother with Yvonne.
This increasingly delusional scenario is deftly spun out so as to avoid, until late in the film, defining exactly what degree of truth it contains. As Spider retreats further into his own fiction, Mrs. Wilkinson, too, takes on the face and brash tartiness of Yvonne. But as he prepares to take revenge on her for destroying his family, Spider arrives at the incident in his childhood that scarred him forever and led to him being institutionalized.
Cronenberg creates a creepy atmosphere thick with paranoia and foreboding, allowing only the briefest glimmers of life outside Spider’s obsessive world. While the film shares certain atmospheric elements with other neo-Gothic chillers like “The Others,” and its mysteries also unravel largely inside the main character’s head, there are no sudden shocks here but a quieter brand of suspense and fascinating texture, both visual and dramatic.
McGrath’s script supplies intriguing layers of Freudian detail about mother fixations, sexuality and violence, quietly conveying a penetrating sense of a man whose few remaining shreds of sanity are falling away. While the pace will be stultifying for those not immediately drawn in, audiences who respond to the director’s strange hybrid world of reality and dark imagination will be gripped from the opening scenes through the taut final act.
Spider-web imagery is effectively used in the string games played by young Spider, later in the trap he lays, in the web of criss-crossing strands strung up in his room at the halfway house and in the reassembled shards of a broken window.
Drawing his lanky frame in tight to look physically frail as well as aged and scruffy, and speaking much of the time in a semi-incoherent mumble, Fiennes sheds all the actorly mannerisms that have sometimes burdened his work, giving a performance so focused in its mental torment it’s almost painful to watch.
Richardson shows her range, depicting Mrs. Cleg as a woman sadly hanging onto hope, still trying to pretend she has some kind of satisfying family life despite her errant husband’s surliness; her Yvonne is trashy, vulgar, graceless and totally without morals, in the latter scenes injecting that same brassy sexuality into Mrs. Wilkinson’s cold authoritarian manner.
Byrne, Redgrave and Neville all make strong impressions in incisively drawn roles while Hall conveys the loneliness and desperation of a child convinced he’s been betrayed and endangered by those closest to him.
In addition to Andrew Sanders’ dingy, stripped-back production design and Howard Shore’s subtle, brooding minor-key score, a crucial contribution comes from lenser Peter Suschitzky, whose odd low angles and washed-out tones effectively mirror Spider’s off-kilter state of mind.