★ / ★★★★
Spider (Ralph Fiennes) is recently released from a mental institution and has been assigned to live in a transitional residential facility manned by Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave) to determine if he, in fact, is cured. When not interacting with the residents, he spends his time unintelligibly writing on a journal, followed by flashbacks of Spider as a boy (Bradley Hall). He loves his mother (Miranda Richardson) but he is convinced that every time his father (Gabriel Byrne) visits a pub for some drinks, he is actually having an affair. But why Spider is committed to a mental hospital?
“Spider,” based on a novel by Patrick McGrath, comes off too controlled and calculated, every step a contrivance, so rarely do we get a chance to truly connect to the disturbed main character. Though Spider is a curiosity some of the time, the heavy-handed images, like the attempt to complete a jigsaw puzzle which is supposed to reflect his broken memories, neither ring true nor add weight to the material.
There are too many symbolic images designed to convince us that there is still something wrong with him. They are unnecessary. We can easily see for ourselves just by looking at Spider’s appearance, like his neglect for hygiene, talking to himself when no one is around, and the tremors, that he should not yet have been released. It was as if the screenwriters had seen too many uninspired thrillers and made a checklist of what makes someone with mental problems so scary. Instead of narrowing down what feels right for their story, everything is thrown at the wall.
The material might been more effective if the filmmakers refrained from judging the lead character so consistently that we end up being forced to think a certain way. Why not allow us to think for ourselves and weigh what is possibly happening? Back in the day, people with abnormal psychology were not fully understood so they were treated with animosity and violence. I wished the filmmakers have attempted to find a way, without being heavy-handed, to convey that message. Turning someone into a villain is easy; creating a figure worthy of our sympathy and interest requires a bit of insight and effort.
Moreover, the flashback scenes are not as effectively executed. A handful of details are messy, confusing, and frustrating. For example, how can adult Spider have images of what his father did with a local prostitute if young Spider was not in the same room with them at the time? With this example, among others, the lack of logic is astounding.
Directed by David Cronenberg, “Spider,” despite its many ideas, a few of them quite smart, feels too thin and drawn out. The unexplained holes make it seem like the ending depends on a coin flip, usually a sign of a weak picture, instead of a defined inevitable conclusion. At one point I wondered if the film would have been stronger if the ending had been shown in the first scene so we know what signs to look for that lead up to it. In any case, it is still a complete mess.