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Spider is a 2002 Canadian/British drama film produced and directed by David Cronenberg and based on the novel of the same name by Patrick McGrath, who also wrote the screenplay. The film premiered at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival and enjoyed some media buzz; however, it was released in only a few theaters at the year's end by distributor Sony Pictures Classics. Nonetheless, the film enjoyed much acclaim by critics and especially by Cronenberg enthusiasts. The film garnered a Best Director award at the Canadian Genie Awards. The stars of the film, Ralph Fiennes and particularly Miranda Richardson, received several awards for their work in the film. During a Q session at the Kodak Lecture Series in May 2005, Cronenberg revealed that neither he, nor Fiennes, nor Richardson, nor the producers received any sort of salary during the shooting of the film. All chose to waive their salaries, so the money could be used to fund the under-funded production. Spider is the story of Dennis Cleg, a man who is given a room in a halfway house catering to mentally disturbed persons.
The pacing of Spider is totally understandable, seeing as it entirely takes place in and around a halfway house for recently-released mental patients -- and, obliquely, within the mind of its central character. 'Spider' (Ralph Fiennes) is a muttering mess, a paranoid schizophrenic who wears four shirts atop one another and scribbles illegibly in a little book he carefully hides at the end of each day. Just out of the loony bin, Spider hops a train to London, finds his depressing room at the inn, faces annoyed berating at the hands of stern Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave), and immediately begins shutting himself into a cocoon. 'Caterpillar' might be a better nickname -- for the man and for the movie.
Over the next hour and a half, Spider revisits the settings of his youth, which are conveniently just around the corner from the halfway house. Spider takes day trips -- in the flesh and in his head -- as he spends a little quality time with mum, da, and himself at the age of 9, during a rather key period in his past during which a certain character may or may not have been shoveled to death, buried in the garden, and replaced with a cackling doppelganger. All the while, the old/crazy Spider watches events unfold helplessly, It's a Wonderful Life in reverse. By the end, we get the feeling Spider has relived this routine endlessly since his youth, over and over and over again, in and out of various institutions.
And that's the sum of Spider's web. Even die-hard indie fans are going to walk out in boredom and fall asleep from the tedium. To do so would be a pity, though, because Spider features some terrific performances from Fiennes (who has no discernable lines of dialogue), newcomer Bradley Hall (as young Spider), and the always-impressive Miranda Richardson, as Spider's put-upon mother. Oddly, Gabriel Byrne seems a little out of place as dear old dad.
Cronenberg's deep shadows and methodical pacing give Spider that Barton Fink feeling of overwhelming claustrophobia and extreme discomfort. You feel like the movie is trying to build up to some glorious revelation, but that revelation comes midway through the film. The before and after comprise a very beautiful bore, full of spidery symbolism, Cronenbergian freak-outs, and endless scenes of Fiennes muttering and scribbling away. We get the point after about 10 minutes, but the film never strays far from this theme. Spider doesn't exhibit anything approaching character growth -- he's an enigma trapped in a personal Mobius strip of his life, which unfortunately doesn't make for much of a movie.
Web of beauty.