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, Spider immediately 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.”
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.
Cronenberg contrives a closed world at once richly detailed and stringently economical. The tone is also darkly comic, but it’s hard to imagine anyone laughing. (The best equivalent I know is the bleak humor and nightmare mise-en-scène of Roman Polanski’s similarly claustrophobic 1976 psychodrama, The Tenant.) Such chilly perfection will not be to every taste. But neither is Cronenberg’s acknowledged model, Samuel Beckett. Spider lasts in the mind and it’s built to last—this is a movie that invites and repays repeated viewings.
As its protagonist reconstructs, scripts, and “directs” his memories, Spider projects a powerful sense of madness as a form of artistic creation. For the late psychiatrist (and student of existentialism) R.D. Laing, madness was a form of self-creation or role-playing. It was Laing’s radical contention that schizophrenics were driven mad, usually by their families, and sought protection by adopting the mask of a “false self.” Conventional treatment only exacerbated the condition. In lieu of hospitalization, Laing advocated safe asylums, therapeutic communities where patients lucky enough to afford them might freak freely amid kindred spirits and doctors living as their equals.
A charismatic counterculture oracle on the order of fellow academics Marshall McLuhan, Herbert Marcuse, and Norman Brown, Laing reached the peak of his fashion 30 years ago. In 1972, the same year that Ken Loach doggedly dramatized Laingian therapy in Wednesday’s Child, Canadian filmmaker Peter Robinson made an official documentary of the Archway Community, an experimental treatment center founded by Laing in the mid 1960s. It’s a place where the only rule, we’re told, is that the rent must be paid—in advance—every Monday.
Set in a London row house not unlike Spider’s, albeit far more cheerful and pleasantly situated, the Archway is populated by a gaggle of mainly young and generally well turned out Anglo-Americans. The women all have long hair; most of the men have beards. There always seems to be a healthy mess of macrobiotic nourishment simmering on the stove, and, as in a permissive kindergarten, the writing is on the walls: “Leon Has a Good Brain.”
The Archway’s ambience is at once laid-back and chaotic—with just a bit of Titicut Follies lunacy to keep the spectator alert. It’s unclear how much the filmmaking process contributed to the overall theatricality. The filmmakers did, however, take care to insure that their movie had its stars. In nearly the very first scene, an ethereal blond named Julia makes an indelible impression, hysterically complaining that “Uncle” David’s continual ranting about fascists and nuclear installations has become intolerable. One of the older patients, David demands attention with his sustained babble, bare chest, and glittering eye. Julia’s scene-stealing strategy is one of total regression—apparently to the age of six months.
Other patients are heard from throughout, as are their relatives. A lordly gentleman comes to Archway to visit his son—explaining at length, while the cab waits outside, his strategy for building the boy’s confidence. The idea of this omnipotent parent paying a girl to date his near catatonic son amply fulfills Laing’s worst sense of family relations. But David soon reoccupies center stage. Asylum ends with an all-house meeting called to discuss his obnoxious behavior—gratuitously striking the other inmates. Julia can’t stand the pressure and starts bawling; David gesticulates and acts “crazy” until the group leader manages to contact the extravagant madman’s inner “little boy.” A haunting postscript has David returned to himself—calmer, sadder, and, in the absence of his madness, unmistakably diminished.
Asylum is a fascinating documentary—both as a period piece and for its theater-of-the-absurd pathos. It would be illuminating to see a psychologically annotated version. Without overview, it plays like the inadvertent inspiration for Lars von Trier’s transcendentally snarky vision of a therapeutic commune, The Idiots.
Related Story: “J. Hoberman talks with David Cronenberg and Patrick McGrath”