Cronenberg’s film is a languidly paced unravelling of the memory of Spider (Ralph Fiennes), a man who has just been let out of a mental institution.
Seemingly stricken with schizophrenia, Spider takes gentle steps off the train and shuffles into society; as streams of passengers rush by him this opening shot beautifully places Spider in the context of the world. Spider is a man whose life has passed him by. Where people generally have families, jobs and places to go, Spider is not sure of his place in the world and the rest of the film aims to answer this mystery.
He goes to live in a halfway house run by Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave) and it is here we start to see his peculiarities: the way he moves, his muttering (barely audible but really effective vocalisations), the layering of his clothing, his precious diary, his fear of the gas tower that seems to peer down over the halfway house and his magpie tendencies to pick up scraps and rubbish for collection.
We also note Spider is troubled by his past as he seems to be visiting a house that is actually a shot of himself as a boy sitting in the kitchen of his childhood with his mother (Miranda Richardson). This is the first of many snapshots of Spider’s past that to an extent help us understand why he has been institutionalised but also only aid in showing the complexity and gravity of the damage done and how he is utterly unprepared for a ‘normal life’.
In a stunning performance, Richardson takes on effectively three roles: Spider’s mother, Mrs. Cleg, whom he adores and who speaks of spider webs and where he gets his nickname, a woman called ‘Yvonne’ who appears to have ‘replaced’ his mother and an incarnation (in Spider’s mind) of Mrs. Wilkinson.
Cronenberg takes us through small snippets of Spider’s life that are both what he witnessed as a boy and what he imagined has happened. As we witness these ‘memory sequences’ we also see Spider the grown man standing in the background watching the action, and as Cronenberg mentioned in commentary, it is like he is a director constructing the memory which is actually what is happening.
Key occurrences are the marital issues between Mrs. Cleg and Bill Cleg (also a solid performance by Gabriel Byrne), and his father and Yvonne, who in the beginning seems to be the local prostitute. In Spider’s memory his father murders Mrs. Cleg and takes up with Yvonne (and a big shout out to Miranda Richardson’s teeth here …).
This building of the story in the middle of the film is interchanged with scenes of him at the halfway house, writing furiously in his diary and piecing together a puzzle. We also see a flashback to Spider’s days with other patients in the institution working in the field, which reveals the sexual feelings Yvonne evokes within him.
In the culmination of the film and if one is still convinced of the reliability of Spider’s memory, there is a sense of, dare I say it, sweet revenge against the female figure of Yvonne and a small victory against the acts of his father. But this is countered immediately by a possible different ‘truth’ and it is here that we realise the only thing that is certain is Spider’s broken soul and how he has used memory, imagined and real, to try to piece together his life.
I was very impressed by how Cronenberg seems to fuse two definite points of view throughout the film and how, at its conclusion, those definitive views are shattered, but done in a way that sheds new light on their meaning and thus reinforces the power of those views.
What really happens with Spider’s mother probably doesn’t matter, but for me Spider is a shattered man who I think could not accept his mother changing and changing in a way to please her husband and rejuvenate her marriage and perhaps even putting her husband before Spider. I don’t know that an actual death occurred although it would explain him being institutionalised.
He is obviously a very fragile person who adored his mother and you could probably make a case that Mrs. Cleg either left (which is sort of hinted at) or that she changed in ways that Spider did not like.
I loved the use of motifs such as the puzzle and the webs: the web of the strings, the spiders, the web of storytelling, the puzzle of the shattered glass and jigsaw puzzle of the dove. Even the gas tower seemed to have a web of wired fencing around it.
In the end Cronenberg leaves a lot of the answers open and Spider is really still a boy who has never in any positive way pieced together the puzzles of his breakdown. I thought the pace of this film worked very well – it was very much Spider’s pace and effectively created an atmosphere where we are in his mind and his world. Cronenberg describes an expressionistic feel to some of the scenes where it is exaggerated in its isolation such as when Spider first goes to the halfway house and the emptiness of the street, all of which aids his isolation and distorted view of the world.
Fiennes is very good and shows the layers of someone so convinced of his memory, who seems so convinced of the correctness of his actions but who finally quietly retreats back into the institution in a way that solidifies the hopelessness of his breakdown. Richardson is excellent and Byrne is solid as they take on characters of both his real and imagined memory.