by Marty Demarest

David Cronenberg is trying to drive us all nuts. Think about it: This is the director who gave us films in which someone's head explodes during the first reel (Scanners), Jeremy Irons engages in icky gynecology (Dead Ringers), Jeff Goldblum vomits on donuts (The Fly) and a typewriter-bug talks through its sphincter (Naked Lunch). No matter how you look at them -- particularly if you look at them -- his images are the kind that neither go down nor go away easily.

So viewers who see his name next to the DVD title Spider might assume the worst. However, it turns out to be one of the director's least-icky works, graphically speaking. Never fear, though -- or really, fear more: All that oogly energy has been directed into the storytelling itself, making for a simultaneously disturbing and exciting film.

Ralph Fiennes stars as Spider, who when we meet him, is a mumbling mess of a man recently released from a mental hospital, sent to live in a boarding house in his childhood neighborhood. As he walks the familiar streets, a routine series of flashbacks reveal Spider's beautiful mother, alcoholic-abusive father and their strangely empty world.

But about 20 minutes into what seems like an otherwise normal narrative, things start to break down as Fiennes begins to turn up in scenes of which the young Spider would have had no knowledge. Then you notice how frequently Miranda Richardson -- as Spider's mother and much, much more -- appears. What happens throughout the film is disciplined transgressive filmmaking by Cronenberg, and it makes you mistrust your own eyes while placing absolute faith in his clinically clean images.

Fiennes, Bradley Hall (as the young Spider) and Gabriel Byrne as his father, are all very good. But Richardson is unnerving. It's not giving too much away to point out that you'll want to watch the film another time just to see the range of her performance. It's rare to find an actress with the courage to dive into a role of such blatant psychological expressionism. It's a tragedy that, because Spider is a hermetic, less-than-low-budget film, it's unlikely to earn Richardson the accolades she deserves for this role. So do everyone involved in this elegant production a project a favor and rent it. The gore is less than you'd think, and the movie is much, much more than you'd suspect.

Publication date: 08/07/03

Norman Rockwell's America @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

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