David Cronenberg’s Spider, starring Ralph Fiennes as a discharged mental patient living in a ratty halfway house in London’s East End, is the latest fantasy-and-reality movie about men with highly distressed brainwaves. A Beautiful Mind kicked off the cycle, and more recently, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind brought us the CIA-hit-man fantasias of Chuck Barris. Compared with those films, which pulped paranoia into gaudy cloak-and-dagger scenarios, Spider is almost minimalist.
The austerity begins with Fiennes himself, who looks so wasted-away that he resembles a line drawing of the man he used to be. He plays Spider, a muttering, indrawn schizophrenic with a spiky, Samuel Beckett–style shock of hair. His fingers are tanned with nicotine, his face blotchy and raw, and he wears four or five shirts at a time. Institutionalized in the sixties, at age 10, Spider grew up near the halfway house, and his return to the run-down, near-deserted neighborhood two decades later sets off a flood of harrowing memories. We see him, as an adult, looking in on primal scenes from his childhood—for example, the moment when his mother discovers his father having sex with a tart, resulting in murder.
There are visual tip-offs, however, that what we are witnessing may not really have happened; Spider’s flashbacks could be a camouflage covering a deeper wound. The movie, written by Patrick McGrath and based on his novel, is a kind of psychological whodunit, but without the thrills. The clue-making is rather desultory, as if Cronenberg were indulging a narrative strategy he didn’t really care for.
What he does care about is showing derangement from the inside out. His films, which include The Fly, Naked Lunch, and Crash, pullulate with rot. What separates him from the schlock horrormeisters is his deep-down affinity for decay; he wants us to know that we can all be reduced to pustules and poisonous fluids, that the flesh we inhabit is festering on the bone. For Cronenberg, there is an essential truth in this depiction: It represents who we really are. Spider isn’t an aberration; he’s us—give or take a few calamities.
Spider doesn’t go in for the gross-outs the way many of Cronenberg’s other films do, but its worldview is basically the same: We are watching the churnings of a soul, and it’s not a pretty sight. Cronenberg’s lack of sentimentality is just about total. Although many of the set pieces couldn’t be more Freudian, the film itself never subscribes to Freudian theory; neither is there any cant about how difficult it is to survive in society or about how suffering leads to redemption. As much as we may grieve for Spider because of his afflictions, we are never meant to blubber in sympathy for him. The film is too clinical for that, perhaps excessively so. Cronenberg is so careful not to hoke up the proceedings that he ends up draining the life out of his scenes. The world he shows us is a startling replication of Spider’s own. We appear to be trapped inside the consciousness of a man who is trapped inside his own head. But after a while, it becomes clear that Cronenberg’s game plan is unchanging; scene after shadowy scene proceeds in the same lockstep. It’s as if Cronenberg were trying to punish us into seeing the world as he sees it.
Because the film is so cryptlike and uninhabited, its few performers loom large in the frame. Gabriel Byrne plays the father, and Miranda Richardson has a triple role as the mother, the tart, and, near the end, in Spider’s fantasy life, the martinet who runs the halfway house (a role otherwise played by Lynn Redgrave). As the young Spider, Bradley Hall has a clenched, tremulous power. But as effective as these actors are, it is Fiennes who dominates, and one’s opinion of the movie will pretty much rise or fall on one’s opinion of his performance. I think it’s a staggeringly intricate feat—which is another way of saying I admired what he was doing without being knocked out by it. Fiennes has often been too sleekly calibrated for my taste; he’s like an art object who emotes. Spider is a departure for him, not merely because he allows himself to look genuinely ragged and pulled apart but also because his performance is largely about silences and slow, stricken looks. He’s trying to be a more intuitive actor here, and although we can never quite forget that it’s Fiennes working very hard to make us forget it’s Fiennes, what he’s doing has great integrity.
In the end, that integrity may be a drawback. By delineating so exactly the glowers and tics of this nowhere man, Fiennes turns him into an artful case history rather than a full-drawn character. Since the range of Spider’s emotional life is obsessively narrow, this approach at least has the virtue of being psychiatrically honest. But there isn’t much light in this black hole of a movie, just varying shades of darkness.
The Life of David Gale appears to have been made as some kind of manifesto against the death penalty, but somewhere along the way, the Grisham-esque murder-mystery plot got so scrambled that, finally, it’s anybody’s guess what the filmmakers intended. Kevin Spacey is David Gale, an anti-death-penalty agitator who is on death row for allegedly raping and murdering a fellow compatriot in the cause, played by Laura Linney. Kate Winslet is the headstrong magazine reporter—she is referred to, rather ungallantly, as “Mike Wallace with PMS”Â—who Gale hopes will clear him in the three days remaining before his execution. Before the merde hit the fan, Gale was a smarty-pants philosophy professor at the University of Texas. Just in case we don’t appreciate what a brainiac he is, we’re treated to one of those patently phony lectures that so often turn up in campus-themed movies, as Gale entrances his students with Lacan. (Here’s a real mystery: Why can’t Hollywood make a convincing classroom scene?) Director Alan Parker and his screenwriter, Charles Randolph, throw in lots of penny-dreadful scares to fill out the time. Low thrills and high dudgeon are a bad mix. In the end, the moral of the movie seems to be, If you’re up for murder, don’t be tried in Texas. But then, you already knew that.