That’s the first verse of an old English folk poem; set to music, it provides the ironic soundtrack behind the main titles of David Cronenberg’s stark and stunning new film, Spider. Ralph Fiennes (Red Dragon, The End of the Affair) is Dennis Cleg, nicknamed "Spider" as a child. He’s just been released to a halfway house after years in a mental institution. Every urban person today has seen his counterpart on the street–wearing layers of clothing, mumbling to himself, posture stooped, a hesitant walk, a look in his eye that suggests he’s not completely in the here and now. Spider is seen from his point of view and it is a bleak and disturbing excursion into the mind of a schizophrenic.
Cronenberg and his production team have achieved a distinctive look for the film. Most of the color is washed out (they used special film stock), leaving a cheerless palette of grays and browns. Streets are near deserted, buildings are shabby; in one telling image, Spider walks by a building that has had all its doors and windows sealed off with cinder block–a picture of disuse, an interior locked off from the world.
The halfway house (colorless, paint peeling, rusty bath water, residents inhabiting their own interior worlds) is run by Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave) with efficiency and bureaucratic indifference. "This is an island ruled by a tyrant queen," explains Terrence (John Neville), one of the residents. The barred window of Spider’s room faces a huge tank, part of a refinery complex across a canal. Cronenberg’s always keen use of sound here adds a sense of threat to the tank: background hisses and quiet, subtle hummings and gurglings of mysterious, unseen internal workings.
Spider is free to walk about the neighborhood, the neighborhood in which he grew up. Various locations trigger his memories of boyhood, his distant and truculent father (Gabriel Byrne) and his beloved mother (Miranda Richardson), while Spider busily makes notations in his notebook in densely packed, indecipherable hieroglyphs. In the flashback scenes he is always present as an invisible observer. The scenes are presented with a strong sense of the real–the dialogue rings true, the performances naturalistic (with occasional moments of exaggeration)–but it is clear that they are seen through Spider’s mind’s eye. That it’s all painfully true to him is certain, but the actual events take on a deliberately unresolved ambiguity.
What emerges is an austere and emotionally wrenching portrait of youthful trauma growing out of classic Oedipal conflict, conflict for Spider that is so profound that his mind has turned inward, perpetually fighting demons that have overwhelmed his ability to function in a rational and largely uncaring world. Fiennes’ performance is extraordinary; he has internalized this character and makes Spider’s gentle madness emanate from within. The constant mumble, the movement of his eyes, the posture and walk speak of Spider’s fears and pain more clearly than could mere words. Richardson (The Crying Game, Chicken Run), always chameleonic, gets to display her accomplished versatility here in unexpected ways.
Cronenberg has made in Spider a perceptive portrait of a tortured soul. While it is undeniably painful to observe the misery of its hero, it is an elegant and illuminating work and the director’s impeccable cinematic artistry itself generates an exhilarating aesthetic experience.