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What's the story, mother?
A region 1 DVD review of SPIDER by Slarek
 
"To be faithful to a novel you have to betray it in cinematic terms."
Spider director David Cronenberg

 

How do you go about raising funding for a film like Spider? Its central character is a schizophrenic, recently released from an asylum and almost completely unable to communicate with others, his speech a series of almost unintelligible mumbles to no-one in particular and his notepad tightly crammed with scribblings in a language of his own invention. As he arrives in London and seeks out the halfway house in which he is to lodge, the camera repeatedly isolates him in often eerily empty landscapes. Later in the story, the people around him and those in his own memory appear to shift and swap identity. We are prompted to connect with him not because he is engaging or witty or likeable, but because the film itself climbs inside his head and takes residence there, forcing us to see the world as he does, to share his recollections and his confusion and fear of everything and everyone. There's no voice-over to provide clarification, no sudden opening up of the character to allow us to warm to him – this is one hard sell to even the most adventurous funding source.

I would venture to say that there are few filmmakers in western cinema who would even consider taking on such a story, and fewer still who could pull it off with such aplomb. David Cronenberg has never shied away from so-called 'difficult' projects – indeed, part of what makes him such a great outsider director is that he positively embraces them. Initially a genre film-maker of distinctive style, Cronenberg has managed to widen his scope without diluting his vision a fraction, creating works as individually compelling and diverse as Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Crash and eXistenZ, and yet infuse each with distinctively Cronenbergian thematic meat. The destruction or mutation of the body, the loss of free will to the controlling power of obsession, the liberational strength and risks of non-conformity are all elements that he openly celebrates. With Spider this focus is narrowed considerably, as we do not engage with the central character and observe his slide into self destruction as we did with Beverly Mantle in Dead Ringers or Jeff Brundle in The Fly – when we meet Spider, the damage has already been done, and we are invited to work with him as he attempts to unravel an unclear horror from his past and confront the issues that changed him from an everyday young boy into the seriously disturbed adult that he has become.

This is a film experience in which the audience is required to both work and have faith. There is no initial narrative hook, no snappy opening and few real clues in the early stages to indicate where the story will later head. The film moves at Spider's own unhurried pace, revealing key information in a way that only becomes fully clear at the end. On paper this is a risky approach, but it proves utterly compelling from the very first shot, a slow track down a station platform though a throng of commuters to reveal our lone and confused lead character. This may not be the traditional Hollywood opening, which too often consists of a wearily predictable burst of action – a technique born from the terror of losing the short attention span audience in the first three minutes – and we may not be able to immediately identify with Spider, but he holds our attention from the start through the simple fact that he is interesting. If the story itself is a puzzle for the audience and the film's central character to solve, then so is Spider himself, an enigma waiting to be unraveled in the classic mystery mode. It's an intricate process, and Cronenberg drops the narrative clues in a manner that repeatedly moves the story forward and yet continues to protect Spider's dark secret until the film is ready to reveal it. On a second viewing, intrigue and guesswork are replaced by a sense of wonder at the extraordinary complexity of this seemingly minimalist approach, providing as it does a better understand the workings of Spider's mind and how the events of his past have continued to shape his present.

If considerable credit must go to Cronenberg for the making this work as well as it does – his camera placement and editing are key factors in creating the sense of dark mystery that surrounds the central character – then he shares it with Ralph Fiennes, who is nothing short of extraordinary as Spider, immersing himself so completely in the role that you genuinely forget you are watching a performance. Every twitch, mumble, movement and nuance feels utterly authentic, and he is very convincingly presented as a man robbed of his dignity and privacy, one for whom a simple bedsit room is a source of unexplained terrors. It seems almost ironic that although determined not to produce a case study of schizophrenia, Cronenberg, screenwriter Patrick McGrath (on whose novel the screenplay was based) and Fiennes have nonetheless built a far more convincing and unsensationalist film around the subject than the over-praised A Beautiful Mind. This is film acting at its least self-serving, a brilliant performance that is nonetheless never flashy or attention grabbing and not the sort that attracts the attention of the Academy.

But this is no one-man show. Equally remarkable is the superb Miranda Richardson, who plays two very distinct characters (this is no gimmick and essential to Spider's own memories and perception of his present) and later even melds one of them with a character played elsewhere in the film by a different actress. She plays each to perfection, her performance as the tarty Yvonne in particular being absolutely spot-on – the accent, facial expressions and body language are so right that it's worth a viewing of the film just to watch Richardson in action. Fine support is provided by Gabriel Byrne as Spider's father, a role he confesses was probably the hardest of his life (you need to see the film and watch the extras to fully understand why), Lynn Redgrave as the frosty landlady Mrs. Wilkinson and John Neville as fellow house resident Terrence, a man who exudes a sense of rebelliousness that has long since been crushed.

Slowly paced but darkly compelling, Spider is a beautifully performed and constructed work. Particular credit should go to director of photography and Cronenberg regular Peter Suschitzky, who lights interiors with a sometimes unsettling combination of naturalism and surrealism (a style that is most strongly evident in the potentially mundane but striking long shot of Spider framed against a cupboard in his room, writing in his journal with his back to the camera), Howard Shore's unsettling, low key score and Andrew Sanders' atmospheric production design. Typically of a Cronenberg film, all of those involved in the production appear to have a completely unified view of the material, creating the sense that everything you see on screen, from the gigantic gas storage cylinders to the wallpaper in Spider's room and the very string he uses to create his webs, has been pulled from the inside of Spider's own mind.

Although lacking the visceral thrills of Cronenberg's genre works or even the taboo-busting controversy of Crash, Spider demonstrates clearly just how masterful a director Cronenberg has become, and the film shines not just as a gripping and imaginative psychological drama, but as a showcase for his ability to tell a complex, intelligent story in purely cinematic terms.

sound and vision

Framed at 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a pleasingly crisp and well balanced transfer with first rate contrast and strong colour reproduction, very nicely reproducing the browns and greys that dominate much of the production and costume design. Very few compression artefacts are visible, no mean feat given the studied gloom of many scenes. A very nice job.

The 5.1 soundtrack is a resolutely unflashy affair, but there is subtly effective use of the full sound stage, with rain, wind and other location atmospherics creeping up on you from behind, and some very nice separation work on some sound effects (Gabriel Byrne's night-time cycle ride to the allotments and the window breaking in the asylum are very good examples). The almost David Lynch-like background noises in Spider's bedsit are particularly effective, though there is surprisingly little use of the lower frequencies. An impressively and appropriately subtle mix.

extra features

The crucial difference between the UK region 2 release of the film and the US region 1 under examination here is that this one includes a David Cronenberg Commentary, which for fans of the director makes it the one to have. Cronenberg's typically soft-spoken approach provides a wealth of information on the film, specifically his approach to the material and the collaborative process of working with his actors and crew in a country that was not his own, something that prompts an interesting (and accurate) observation about "a certain type of English pub anger," and there is a handy explanation of allotments for the non-British viewers. Towards the end this drops off in favour of describing the on-screen action, or at least its subtext, most of which should be clear after a couple of viewings, though Cronenberg still has an interesting alternative reading for the ending.

There are three featurettes, all 4:3 and assembled from the same set of interviews.

In the Beginning: How Spider Came to Be (8:09) looks at the considerable problems of financing the film and getting it up and running and says a lot about the determination of those involved to see the project through, especially given that at the time of the interview Cronenberg and several of the key cast and crew had still received no payment for their work.

Weaving the Web: The Making of Spider (9:08) deals with the approach taken by Cronenberg and his collaborators to planning and shooting the film. The majority of the interview time is spent with Cronenberg, and although interesting it does tend to repeat aspects already covered in the commentary (well, it depends on which order you play the extras).

Caught in the Spider's Web: The Cast (12:23) also doubles up on the commentary and the Cronenberg interview material, but the cast interviews still provide plenty of useful viewpoints on what was clearly a challenging job for all concerned.

There are very basic Filmographies for Cronenberg, McGrath, Fiennes, Richardson, Byrne and Redgrave.

Finally there are Trailers for Spider and other Columbia Tristar releases Adaptation, Punch-Drunk Love and The Devil's Backbone.

summary

Spider is the sort of film that has a surface air of minimalist simplicity that quickly disperses to reveal a film of extraordinary narrative and thematic complexity, to the extent that second and third viewings prove possibly even more rewarding than the first, as the pieces of the psychological jigsaw can more clearly be seen being laid into place. The performances are divine and Cronenberg's direction consistently assured, creating what he has rightly described as an expressionist film that tells the story from inside the head of its protagonist. Time may well see Spider held up as one of the director's finest achievements, and stands now as evidence that if western cinema really has a future as an artistic medium, then it will be through the work of film-makers like David Cronenberg.

Available on both region 1 and 2, the UK region 2 instantly loses out through the absence of the Cronenberg commentary that is the centrepiece of the region 1's extra features. Both disks feature strong anamorphic transfers and 5.1 sound, but for true fans it's the commentary that will be the deciding factor.

Spider

Canada / UK / France 2002
98 mins
director
David Cronenberg
starring
Ralph Fiennes
Miranda Richardson
Gabriel Byrne
Lynn Redgrave
John Neville

DVD details
region 1
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby surround 5.1
languages
English
subtitles
English
extras
Director's commentary
3 featurettes
Filmographies
Trailers
distributor
Columbia Tristar
release date
Out now
review posted
17 February 2005

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See all of Slarek's reviews