With that, let's skip the preamble and get to the feature, shall we?
Remember how I commented back in October that I was astounded it had taken me this long to review anything by Cronenberg? Well, it seems I'm taking myself to task on it again, this time with a full review.
I'm gonna be honest. There's not a lot of screencaps on this one...not so much because I was lazy, but with the way this film was set up and its subject matter, I walked away with a sense of "...how do I riff some of this in good conscience and have it actually make sense?"
So you'll have to bear with me on that one guys, sorry.
So you'll have to bear with me on that one guys, sorry.
Admittedly, this was one I found somewhat by accident going through his filmography, and one I was kind of surprised to learn about in the first place. As his later offerings go, this film seems to have been almost off the radar, having come right before he jumped back into the limelight with A History of Violence.
So, driven by the director name and an interesting summary, I opted to check out his 2002 psychological thriller Spider.
Before I go into this, let me just say that the more I've watched, the more I've really grown to love Cronenberg's films. The man is one of my favorite directors, and the more I look at his work, the more respect I have for it. In fact, it's safe to say, some of his other titles will likely turn up here in time.
That said, it's with this in mind I have to say I'm really surprised that, even among his films, this one doesn't seem to come up that much. Also something of a shame too. While it isn't as massive a hit as later offerings like AHoV and Eastern Promises, nor is it as iconic and biologically repulsive/engrossing as the likes of Videodrome or The Fly, it's still a rather strong film on its own merits.
It's also rather striking for the fact that this was definitely not a career piece for a paycheck in the strictest sense for several of the key players. Based on a novel by author Patrick McGrath, who also wrote the screenplay, this film was fairly low budget in its production. So much so that, to pay for its production, Cronenberg, cast members Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, and the film's producers all declined to take a paycheck for this movie, instead giving the money that would make up their checks to help fund the production. It really hits home as to how committed these people were to making this project a reality. It's a labor of love, in the sort of wonderfully disturbed way that only a Cronenberg movie could be.
In particular, this love really shines through in the work Fiennes does for the movie. As the film's title character (his real name is Dennis Cleg, nicknamed 'Spider' by his mother,) Fiennes plays disturbed quite well. Traumatized by a childhood event, the adult Dennis, now a schizophrenic, has taken up residence at a halfway house for mentally disturbed people run by the harsh Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave), who finds her patience tested by her boarders in varying degrees. During his stay, he revisits his past - from his stay at the asylum, to his childhood, most notably his upbringing with his parents (Richardson and Gabriel Byrne) and the traumatic event that resulted in his illness. One of the interesting touches that results from this lies in the way the film handles the transitions to the past. There is no 'flashback' tell we have to let us know when things are changed. Nor does Spider vanish during flashbacks. Instead, we see him, often looking through windows, or sitting in the background, as much a powerless witness to the events unfolding as we are.
In some ways, this may be part of why this performance doesn't net Fiennes as much acclaim as some of his other roles do. To invoke the infamous 'Tropic Thunder' rule, his turn as Cleg goes full retard - in the best sense of the word possible. This is not a comfortable, nor audience friendly depiction of a mentally ill man. In fact, even as I speak well of it, I'll be the first to admit, there are times it feels honestly uncomfortable watching him in this movie. Which, in a way, I'd consider a strength for him, doubly so given this was a project he felt strongly enough about to do gratis. His genuine interest in the project means he has no reservation with trying to pull punches in his depiction of how genuinely disturbed Dennis is as an adult. The result is as sympathetic as it is disturbing to watch, and it really makes for one of the strongest points of this movie.
For the record, the rest of the cast are certainly strong in this as well. Richardson plays double-duty in the flashbacks and alternates between the two personas quite well, and Byrne's turn as Bill Cleg is, while certainly coming across as something of a bastard, is still handled in a fairly believable light, rather than just being an out and out monster. In the present, we see Redgrave's Wilkinson as someone who, despite being seen as a tyrant by her boarders, actually still comes across as reasonable, if somewhat short-tempered at times (though given what she deals with, it's hard for us as the audience to hold it against her.) The other strong offering comes from Bradley Hall, who appears first in flashbacks and later in a mix of flashback and hallucination as the young Dennis. While he certainly doesn't have to contend with playing the degree of mental unrest Fiennes has in his favor, the events of the past he has to contend with still resulted in some strong moments for a child actor.
McGrath's script works surprisingly well with Cronenberg's direction. Making the most of their unreliable narrator, the two create a genuinely disturbing air of uncertainty in the chain of events as they unfold. The past and the present are seamlessly blended into one another, and hallucinations effortlessly shift in and out of Spider's world with no one else the wiser, and he, once again, powerless to stop them. The effect is altogether disorienting at points, but given its intent, quite effective. An effect made even more potent as the movie goes on, and even the past events become less certain to us.
Weird as this may sound, the overall feel of the film is kind of strange. On the one hand, it's very much a classic Cronenberg story - delving into the more twisted aspects of people, in this case through the psychology. On the other, the idea of the uncertain narrative still feels a bit unusual for him, though he did previously also work with it some on eXistenZ. I have to say, while that film was decent, I think it actually worked better in this go, both in terms of its execution and in its role in the greater narrative.
Overall, I'm not sure I can say this one's really going to be remembered at the same level of some of his classics. It's certainly a great entry for him, but in terms of Cronenberg's crown jewels (the likes of which include Videodrome, Dead Ringers, and AHoV,) this isn't one that really makes such a strong impression to have that impact. Despite that, however, it's still a strong entry all its own, as one of the films that marks the transition into Cronenberg's current style. Well directed and acted, if a bit of a puzzle on the first watch, the film's style (helped along by cinematographer Peter Suschitzky) make the film both grimly oppressive and also that much more compelling. If you're a fan of Cronenberg's work that missed this one, or just interested in seeing a unique psychological thriller and probably one of the better performances of Ralph Fiennes's career, then by all means, give this one a go and see what you think of it.
With that, let me just say, we've got a few titles lined up within the next couple of weeks (that's right, those of you groaning out there, we'll be doing these on more than just the weekends now!)
Keep an eye out, and hopefully will see you here!