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Sound and Fury

In Search of Safe Havens

Spider, the brilliant, disturbing new movie by David Cronenberg, opens as though it were a Lumière flick, an objective documentary, full of life and possibility. A train entering a London station. Scores of passengers depart—brushing past the camera, which might well have followed any of them. When the spectral Dennis Clegg (Ralph Fiennes) shuffles off last, you realize you're already caught amid the tangled phantoms of a madman's world.

Does the heart sink? Adapted by novelist Patrick McGrath from his 1990 literary tour de force, Spiderimmediately conjures a sense of self-contained delusion and sustains that mood for 98 astonishing minutes. More poetic than clinical in its approach to schizophrenia, suffused with existential dread, this evocation of psychological torment is both sensationally grim and exquisitely realized. This case history is rigorously hallucinated—a vision of ecstatic, lysergic shabbiness that can find a terrible, formal beauty in its protagonist's haggard posture or the wretched stains on a flophouse wall.

Fearful and mumbling, teeth and fingers richly coated with nicotine, his sprout of hair standing on end as the result of shock therapy or some other previous trauma, the discharged mental patient finds the East End dive to which he's been directed. This halfway house for human wreckage is located across an industrial canal from a giant gas tank that presides like an implacable deity over this exact but barely naturalistic environment. Inside, the cruel sovereign is one Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave). There's almost nothing else in Clegg's emptied-out world. Nor should there be. By a grotesque coincidence, he has been released into his childhood neighborhood, where he lived with his furious plumber father (Gabriel Byrne) and the mother (Miranda Richardson) who called him "Spider."

Web cam: Fiennes in Spider
photo: Takashi Seida
Web cam: Fiennes in Spider

Details

Spider
Directed by David Cronenberg
Written by Patrick McGrath, from his novel
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens February 28

Asylum
Directed by Peter Robinson
Kino International
February 26 through March 4, at Anthology

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Or perhaps he only imagines it. For much of the movie, Spider rummages through his past. Cronenberg handles the flashbacks with total assurance. The grown Spider haunts his childhood house, spying on his mother, following his solitary younger self (Bradley Hall) to the pub to fetch his father, lurking in the closet as the family eats their unhappy supper. McGrath's novel is the diary of a lunatic, a gorgeously written, completely lucid first-person story by a wildly unreliable narrator. The movie, however, provides no voice-over guidance. Cronenberg shows what Spider sees, but shows Spider as well. Fiennes, who mutters continually, wears at least four shirts, and collects odd pieces of string in the street, may be a writer—but the recollections he records in his tattered, secret notebook are scrawled in an alphabet that only he can understand.

Consistent with the movie's pervasive doubleness, the performances are simultaneously showy and self-effacing. Fiennes gives himself up to his part with a concentration that is almost frightening. His acting is overwhelmingly physical—almost all line readings are choked back or spat away, his eloquence is displaced into the furtive deftness with which he confronts each crisis by rolling himself a cheap cigarette. Another sort of schizo, Richardson triumphantly handles a succession of multiple roles, reappearing in various guises as dictated by the convoluted logic of Spider's cosmology. Byrne has an even trickier job—the manifestations of Spider's father are superficially more consistent yet no less wildly contradictory. The same holds for Bradley Hall's boy Spider, who must lie when he tells the truth and vice versa.

And so too, the movie. As shot by Peter Suschitzky, the muted tones of this cleverly abstracted world are voluptuously dreary while the narrative is the lurid stuff of Greek tragedy. Spider begins to relive the circumstances surrounding his mother's death. In a shocking turn of events, the movie slides almost imperceptibly into hallucination—the protagonist imagining sexual intercourse as masturbation with a sharp-toothed tart, watching his mother's cooking revert to primordial slime, helplessly allowing his childhood furies to invade Mrs. Wilkinson's halfway house.

Cronenberg is clearly a master. Since kissing off the venereal-horror genre that he more or less invented, the filmmaker has executed a nearly unrivaled series of aesthetic successes, almost all of them "impossible" adaptations. No less remarkably, these movies have been as visceral as they are cerebral: Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, the film maudit M. Butterfly, Crash, and eXistenZ. Despite its source, Spider may be the most purely filmic movie of his career. Its restraint is impeccable; editing and acting provide the special effects. The material has been filtered but not overtly Cronenbergized. Spider eschews many of the director's familiar thematic concerns to deal most explicitly with the creation of its fiction. It's the refinement of the riffingly self-reflexive eXistenZ.

Spider's technical greatness derives from its carefully constructed but nonetheless uncanny ability to operate both inside and outside its protagonist's knotted consciousness. And what is the nature of that Spider's web? Its patterns are found everywhere—in his recollected childhood room, in his memories of the broken sheet of glass in the director's office of the asylum where he'd been committed, in a day-room jigsaw puzzle, in the cat's cradle he makes to entertain his mother. Is she at the web's center? Spider's mother too turns out to be everywhere—doubled and redoubled throughout the movie. At some point, the spectator understands that the narrative itself is constantly turning back on itself.

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