Spider (2002)

See, they call him Spider because he plays with yarn, or something.

See, they call him Spider because he plays with yarn, or something.

When I first heard that David Cronenberg made a film called Spider, I thought to myself: awesome! It’ll be about people turning into spiders! Or spiders coming out of people’s orifices! Or something exciting and gross like that! 

Sadly, this is not the case. In my excitement, I must have forgotten how much Cronenberg has changed since the good old days of body horror. Instead of some kind of horror movie this is more of an internal, quiet drama. Ralph Fiennes plays Dennis Cleg, aka Spider, a mentally ill man who, after spending the last few decades in an mental institution, has graduated to a wonderfully gloomy halfway house somewhere in London, with the equally gloomy Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave) watching over its fragile tenants.

As the movie progresses, the audience is witness to Spider’s own observation of his childhood memories. Adult Spider watches (in frame) as kid Spider and his mom (Miranda Richardson) go hunting for dad (Gabriel Byrne) at the pub. Knowing that Spider has some mental illness, we’re tipped off that perhaps Spider’s rendition of the past isn’t exactly true to the actual events that occurred. This becomes obvious after Spider sees his mom and dad kissing in the backyard and he conflates his mother’s image with the town whore’s. Adult Spider watches on as his father and the town whore, Yvonne, murder and bury his mother. Afterwards, Yvonne immediately moves in and tells Spider he should think of her as his mother now.

What the audience knows, but Spider does not, is there really is no Yvonne. Yvonne is just how Spider sees his mother after she’s been sexualized: she’s turned into someone

Is that you, Mom?

Is that you, Mom?

else, someone horrible. It isn’t until Spider revisits these memories as an adult that he actually sees and understands the horrible truth of his past, and his place in it.

I guess that all sounds interesting, and I love the concept of the unreliable narrator and the examination of the human tendency to turn memories into whatever we wish them to be. I think Spider’s schizophrenia actually makes the movie less effective: wouldn’t it be more interesting to examine the transformation of a mentally healthy person’s past from what they believed it to be to what it actually was? Or maybe it would be more interesting if we didn’t know Spider was schizophrenic until the end? I know this movie could have been better – though the critics seemed to have creamed their jeans over it, it’s just missing a lot of somethings for me.

As a side note,  I can’t help but think of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Despair as I write this – which, I only just recently found out, was made into a film in 1978 – directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (!) with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard (!!) – one day you’ll see a post about that movie, but until that time, I direct you to read Despair instead of watching this.


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