It's somehow fortunate that Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg would segue from being one of the premiere directors of horror films to an art-house favorite. His idiosyncratic interest in body-mutation horror always had a deviant perverseness removed from, and more shocking than, the slasher films made popular by the likes of Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter his art has always been a little stranger, and more personal. From his first feature-length effort, 1975's Shivers, Cronenberg's fascination with disease and distortion was evident, making him famous with such titles as the 1981 cult classic Scanners and his most commercial hit so far 1986's The Fly. But along the way Cronenberg's respectability accrued and the gore elements diminished, leading to the more psychologically horrific Dead Ringers in 1988; it featured the performance(s) that made Jeremy Irons' career (so much so that Irons thanked Cronenberg when he won his Oscar). Though some may be disappointed by the lack of on-screen violence in his later works, Cronenberg's desire to explore perversity is still insatiable as the controversy and brilliance of his 1996 effort Crash shows. But if there's been a leitmotif in his recent films, its been the blurring of perception and reality, hinted at in 1983's Videodrome and delved into deeper with Naked Lunch (1991), M. Butterfly (1993), and eXistenZ (1999). With Spider (2002), the director takes this fascination even further by exploring a story via the mind of a schizophrenic. Though it may appear a minor effort on initial viewing, in part because the cast is kept small and the film short, Spider is a complex, deeply involving study of a man's mind that becomes more engrossing with each repeated viewing. Portrayed as a mumbling half-there psychotic, Dennis "Spider" Clegg (Ralph Fiennes) begins the film by re-entering the normal world after spending some time in an asylum. It's obvious from the get-go that he won't fit in, but he's supposed to live in a halfway home run by Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave). Nicknamed as such because he's good with his hands, the story of Spider's life unfolds as he writes it down in incomprehensible squiggles in his journal. This allows him to watch the younger version of himself (Bradley Hall) go through the events that led to his trip to the asylum, as he tries to put the pieces together that caused his mother's murder. At first Spider studies his parents: He had an uneasy relationship with his father Bill (Gabriel Byrne), a heavy drinker and plumber whom the young Spider often had to fetch from the pub, while his mother (Miranda Richardson) doted on him and treated him well. It's when Spider witnesses his father beginning a relationship with a whorish woman named Yvonne (Richardson, again) that he feels his father wants to replace his mother with Yvonne. But the further he delves into his past, every woman in Spider's mind becomes replaced by the image of his mother including Mrs. Wilkinson. The story Spider tells and what he thinks happened grows increasingly obscure, until the truth finally emerges.
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Working from Douglas McGrath's adaptation of his own novel, Spider is a meditation on Freudian angst that twists and turns in unexpected ways. But what may be most impressive about the film is Cronenberg's ability to tell that story through Spider's refractive and terribly unreliable point-of-view while still giving his audience all the information necessary to put the pieces together (a talent that become obvious the more the film is watched). Though the plot seems slow, everything is done so deliberately that every action and element of the story has a ramification. For instance, the movie sets up rules regarding Spider's point-of-view (which never are directly explained) where one should note the distinctions between the reality of what Spider witnesses as a child and the scenes he makes up for himself; the difference is a clue that allows us to learn more about Spider and the truth of his circumstances. As such, and as good as Fiennes is at playing a convincing schizophrenic, it is Miranda Richardson who impresses here, playing three roles that convey what is real and what isn't, while Gabriel Byrne manages well in a part that makes some of his character's actions part of Spider's fevered imagination. In another director's hands, the film might seem like a gimmicky murder mystery along the lines of Donald Kaufman's The 3, but with Cronenberg's skill the picture delves into the mind of Spider we are allowed to empathize and understand his troubles that much more.
Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Spider presents the film in an anamorphic transfer (1.78:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Though not a full-blown special edition, the set comes with some nice supplements: First off is David Cronenberg's audio commentary, and it's one of the most insightful tracks to be found. Cronenberg has never shied away from discussing his cinematic intentions, and he dissects his own film with a keen eye. One wishes more commentators brought as much to the table as he does. Three featurettes are also on board, including "In the Beginning: How Spider Came to Be" (8 min.), "Weaving the Web: The Making of Spider" (9 min.), and "Caught in Spider's Web" (12 min.), all which offer interviews with Cronenberg, screenwriter Patrick McGrath, producer Catherine Bailey, and the cast. Trailers, keep-case.