Crazy people are a popular movie topic. Of the many films that deal with this subject, most, the good and the bad, are concerned in some capacity with how these individuals come to function in more socially acceptable ways. These films (such as A Beautiful Mind, Shine, Girl Interrupted) track a progression; we may begin in the depths of insanity but our troubled protagonist makes connections with others, learns how to do the little things, and takes general steps towards a more normal mental health. Though Spider certainly qualifies as a movie about the insane, it is not a film about the healing process. This film is not about whether Spider (Ralph Fiennes) will get better; it is about the tangible reality of his world and the inner workings of his mind. This film successfully conveys both of these things and that is no small feat; it is a quiet, well crafted, and thoughtful examination of madness.
Anyone who has seen a David Cronenberg film (The Fly, Crash, eXistenZ) knows he has a penchant for weird bugs, weird sex, and exploring the theme of perception: what is reality and how is it an entirely personal phenomenon? The title of this film might lead you to believe that we're in store for some more weird creatures, but the only one you are going to find here is Dennis "Spider" Cleg, a schizophrenic. While he is not a hairy bug, the spider and its web remain the guiding metaphors we are given to understand his mind. It comes as no surprise that a man who's mother affectionately calls him Spider has spun a web of such complex and strong fibers that it would put any black widow to shame. Yet this web has ensnared no one more firmly than its creator. Spider's life has been destroyed, not by his most shockingly destructive act, but by the false connections generated by his mind.
The key components of his web are the characters and occurrences of his childhood. It's too bad, then, that Spider has taken up residence in a halfway home for the mentally disabled that is in the same neighborhood where Spider grew up. During the day, Spider walks around reliving the period when the stirrings of his insanity first developed into unfettered destruction. On a daily basis, Spider is bringing his past back to life. It colors how he feels about everything from gas stoves to twine. He watches his boyhood self and speaks with him, as if he is singing along to a song he knows by heart. He sits in on his mother (Miranda Richardson) and father's (Gabriel Byrne) activities as he believes they happened. All the while he is writing everything down. When Spider is alone in his room he feverishly scribbles in a well guarded notebook. Spider writes in an alphabet only he can understand, which is one of the most powerful indications of Spider's complete solitude. We can harbor no hope that this is a man who will ever reach out or be reached. The concerns of his mind and the pain in his heart are indecipherable.
How did he get like this? There is never going to be a satisfactory answer to such a question, and I'm not entirely sure that it is a relevant one. But there is most definitely a Freudian analysis screaming to be done on Spider; on his clear attachment to his mother, his annoyance and disgust with his father and mother's physical relationship, and above all, a particularly scarring incident when a "tart" at the nearby pub flashes him just for giggles. Even if this is not intended to be an explanation for Spider's disorder (and Cronenberg surely would never ever offer such a pat answer to any question, let alone one this complex) it certainly seems to explain something about the specific manner in which Spider's insanity manifests itself.
This kind of explanation, while perhaps a little tidy, is indicative of the general philosophy of filmmaking David Cronenberg seems to espouse. Nothing in a movie should be unnecessary or fail to contribute in some capacity to our general understanding of the film. Or, letting the movie speak for itself, "It's as if the pieces could not have fit anywhere else." A piece of string that is a childhood toy, a shattered windowpane, and a sock all have symbolic and revelatory meanings. In one beautiful shot, his father and mother cast long and dark shadows into the night, in case we had not already realized what kinds of shadows the past casts. Then there is the film's grand symbol, the spider web, which first appears in Spider's mother's tale about the beautiful silk spider webs that hung on the trees of her childhood. On close examination she saw that the webs were not like pieces of cloth, but like wheels. And Spider, our web spinner, is indeed caught in an endless cycle of repetition: continuously reliving the past, constantly placing his mother into new roles, still picking at pebbles and trash on the street the same way that he did when he was a child, and even wearing the same shoes. Cronenberg loads up every shot with this kind of layered meaning, which is certainly, in some regards, admirable, but it also gives this film a didactic air. So while you can respect it as thoughtful art, you can only enjoy it that way too, which is to say, you trade in any kind of movie-watching fun for intellectual seriousness.
This is a very well acted film. Ralph Fiennes conveys reams of dialogue with only his slouch and shuffle, though there is something about his very core that stays the same from film to film. The amazing performance here is the one by Miranda Richardson, who plays Spider's mother and two other completely different characters. She does all three impeccably and completely distinctly, imbuing them all with a vibrant energy. The boy who plays the young Spider, Bradley Hall, is also outstanding as a sweet, sensitive, quiet boy who is deeply convinced of his own delusions. The sound and cinematography of this film contribute a great deal to establishing Spider's character and mood. Both the unnaturally empty streets of London and the long stretches of silence peppered with just the noises of Spider and his wanderings are powerful ways of conveying Spider's total isolation.
At the end of the film we are left with Spider no better than when we began, and what was the point of that? A movie without any development for the protagonist might seem like a movie that is not worth watching. Yet there is progression in this film, though it does not belong to Spider, but to us. Spider may never change how he understands the world, but we change how we understand the world by seeing it through his eyes. Spider has a logic; it is just a logic that has to encompass delusions. Insofar as the film is from his perspective, we see what Spider sees and we understand why he believes what he does, even though simultaneously we recognize what his mind has fabricated. By the time we reach the end of the film and Spider commits a mind-blowingly horrible act, it is also a comprehensible and forgivable one. This is a serious film that gives us more compassion for a disturbed mind than we could have hoped for.