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'Spider' sees pain's point of view

Friday, June 27, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

The cerebral horror director David Cronenberg, notorious for his graphic films about dysfunction and mutation of the human mind and body, has tried explaining his fascination with the subject this way: "It's really a triumph if you're a virus. See the movies from the disease's point of view," he says.


RATING: R for sexuality, brief language and violence.

STARRING: Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, Lynn Redgrave.

DIRECTOR: David Cronenberg.


In his latest film, "Spider," the disease is schizophrenia and it afflicts the movie's protagonist, Dennis "Spider" Cleg (Ralph Fiennes). As the story begins, he is released from an asylum to a halfway house in the neighborhood where he lived as a child.

We see the movie from his point of view, all right -- Spider, as adult and/or child, is in almost every scene -- and, as we might expect, he is not the most reliable witness. But we may forget that fact as the movie worms its way into his mind while he relives his traumatic childhood in search of the truth he has tried so hard to obscure.

And he really does relive it, in a sense. The movie, taking the disease's point of view, shows us snippets of his memories from childhood. The adult Spider is always somewhere in the background watching his young self (Bradley Hall) with his parents, played by Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson. The elements of Spider's tragedy begin to mix: a roving eye, a barroom slut, a boy who likes to play with string.

And when he's not remembering or trying to, Spider scribbles furiously in his little notebook, in a crabbed style that results in what look like hieroglyphics. On those occasions when he leaves the house, he walks through the neighborhood and recognizes some of the places from his childhood. Time may have healed the psychic wounds in these locations, but what of his own?

We find out in due time, although certain scenes trigger a response in the viewer to shake you out of Spider's reverie, as it were.

But while we are watching what goes on inside his head, we are also watching Spider from without -- his slow gait, his mumbling mouth, his flyaway hair, his ever-present overcoat beneath which he wears three shirts. The film, adapted by Patrick McGrath from his own novel, moves at Spider's pace, reflecting the gray isolation of his world.

And when it is done, we know what happened and why. But we don't know much more about Spider. What else is there to know about a schizophrenic? For starters, there's the fact that Spider's ailment must have preceded the trauma, meaning the incident was not the only cause of his condition.

Also, once Cronenberg shows us what happens, we get no sense of what remembering the trauma might mean to Spider. Maybe it means nothing to him, which would explain the film's cold, clinical approach, tempered mostly by the strong performances by Fiennes and particularly Richardson. They hold you firmly in their web.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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