Psych out

Spider plumbs the dark corners of schizophrenia

David Cronenberg makes a compelling case for repression in his adaptation of New Gothic novelist Patrick McGrath's brilliant Spider. In this mesmerizing film, Cronenberg's signature blood and orifices go underground but emerge in new, darker forms.

Cronenberg's thoroughly creepy and hypnotic film often has the texture of damp wool, his evocation of claustrophobic brooding so intense you can nearly smell the mildew. As in McGrath's novel, Cronenberg has effectively translated madness from the inside out, making us understand viscerally, sickeningly, why mottled and decaying plaster might seem to hold the secrets of the universe, and how a network of conspiracy and tortured subjectivity can lurk beneath our own known world.

Though Spider takes place in the present, its fixation is the gothic ambience of 19th-century fiction and the 1950s of its central character's primal fixations.

Dennis Cleg / Spider (Ralph Fiennes) arrives at a halfway house after being discharged from an asylum. That the decaying, joyless group home (whose grime-smeared walls suggest recently receded flood waters) is presented as some preferable alternative to the asylum gives the sense of just how dark Cronenberg's film is.

The house is an inevitable return — just like Spider's obsessive, coiled madness — to the past, situated in the same grim neighborhood of narrow streets and factories where Spider grew up.

Spider revisits that past in horrific scenes to rival the grotesque worlds of The Elephant Man or Eraserhead, reliving the primal traumas that could be real, or a paranoid's reconstructed family history.

Cronenberg makes Spider an observer on his own past, peeking through the window at his mother (Miranda Richardson) and child self (played by Bradley Hall), or a customer in the barroom frequented by his glum father Bill (Gabriel Byrne). The device is a canny one — Spider is not merely reflecting neutrally as in a typical bloodless flashback. He is a vivid, tangible participant still occupying the central trauma of that same childhood.

The trauma involves his parents' unhappy marriage and the either real or imagined detour his plumber daddy takes with local barfly Yvonne (also played by Richardson) — a nightmare creation of rotted teeth and a body balanced on two tiny stiletto heels like a hunk of Francis Bacon's humanoid meat. Cronenberg suggests there may be unresolved sexual problems abrew in this dank world — a child having a more-than-difficult time reconciling himself to the fact that his parents have sex. However one interprets the veracity of Spider's perspective, what feels wholly real is the sense of queasy dread that accompanies a child's first vision of the line between the known comforts of family and the contaminated, dangerous outside world.

Sex is just one of the brutal, grotesque portals to darker things in Spider — a bodily fear that has been a sustaining interest throughout Cronenberg's career. Like some telltale heart, an enormous gas works lurks directly outside Spider's halfway house window, daring him to remember the details of his past. In place of Cronenberg's obsessive interest in body openings — wounds, assholes and vaginas — the portals in Spider are more banal but just as frightening. The gas furnace in Spider's room and the tilled, rich earth of a vegetable garden that he is compelled to return to suggest openings to the unconscious, to the past, but also to self-knowledge.

In typical Cronenberg fashion, the women of Spider are dark places not to be entered into lightly. You could say the true story of Spider begins when one of the barroom grotesques flashes a tit at the timid boy, thus unleashing a certain association with sex and doom and the cadaverish association the film makes between wet earth, fornication, fluids and plumbing. The beauty of Spider is its labyrinthine function as a figment of individual consciousness so deep, one can never know how much of the film is just another possibility in Spider's mind. We are encouraged, after all, to assume the identification of a mad man — a position we inhabit with great sympathy.

One can see why the decidedly postmodernist Cronenberg would be drawn to such a sketchy point of view. If Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan and Guy Maddin can be taken for ambassadors of a native consciousness, there must be something in the Canadian soul that embraces ambiguity and storylines as dense and tangled as seaweed.

With his tortured muteness and obsessive scrawling into his diary, Fiennes is as vivid as his mise en scene seemingly spewed directly from his consciousness onto the screen. Hunched into himself, as if devouring his own body with his mind's despair, he keeps reeling in the suggestively groin-centered source of his mania: a wool sock stuffed with twine and nails and a notebook where he records his thoughts.

Cronenberg allows Fiennes the room to obsessively recount, to mumble, to stew in a way that ends up giving the impression of what schizophrenia might feel like. What he lends in terms of ambience is a richly atmospheric, humming nightmare world.


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