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Overall Rating

Awesome: 21.43%
Worth A Look: 25%
Pretty Bad: 12.5%
Total Crap: 5.36%

6 reviews, 20 user ratings

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by Erik Childress

"Oedipus Schmedipus, She’s My Mom!"
3 stars

Cronenberg vs. Lynch. Lynch vs. Cronenberg. Where was the battle of the two David’s on Celebrity Deathmatch for the Most Freaked-Up Director in the Universe Title? Cronenberg could have torn all the skin off of his face and then Lynch would have convinced himself that its just a dream in an alternate galaxy. Oh, is that too unsophisticated for these two artistes? Lynch actually has nothing to do with Spider which is entirely Cronenberg’s baby (and not in The Brood kinda way.) It’s a film that raises many questions within the central true story that it recounts but the only one I had after the screening was: And?

Dennis Clegg (Ralph Fiennes) is the last man to get off the train. He’s been released from a mental institution and is on his way (alone) to a halfway house run by Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave). He barely makes eye contact with anyone and speaks in muted mumbles. Is he dangerous to himself or to others? What committed him in the first place and why has he just now been released? Some of these questions will be answered and even more will perplex as Clegg begins to piece together his childhood for us.

In a series of flashbacks the adult Dennis watches his childhood unfold as a third party participant. There’s young Dennis (Bradley Hall), the nine-year old with a doting mother (Miranda Richardson) and a hard-working father (Gabriel Byrne) who loves the pub so much it’s his idea of a night out with his wife. While going to fetch Pa for supper one evening a local drunken tart flashes her breast at him, setting into motion a series of seemingly connected events that may hold the clue to Dennis’ dementia.

The title comes from Dennis’ nickname as a child for his fascination for playing with twine. Inevitably it would take on the shape of a spider’s web and also conveniently provide the film with its singular leitmotif. (Would it have been too much trouble for Mrs. Clegg to call her son “Puzzle”?) Mrs. Clegg certainly had her son close in her mind, but not nearly as much as Dennis had her in his. When he discovers daddy regularly giving the breast-flasher a pint of something, she immediately takes on the appearance of Mum, as do nudie pictures and just about every woman he comes in contact with. Oooh, Oedipus would have been so proud.

Cronenberg does indeed construct the narrative like a webbed puzzle. What are we seeing? What is Dennis seeing and what is the final piece? That’s not nearly as hard to figure out as the outcome may suggest. What is hard to figure is how many will praise this as a definitive examination of schizophrenia while dismissing more noticed Hollywood efforts like A Beautiful Mind? Does a movie automatically earn points over another in some minds because it’s seemingly more internal, slower and Canadian? Is John Nash’s story less tragic because he achieved success where Dennis Clegg was just a disturbed man? Call me schizo, but I know who I’d rather have a conversation with. SHUT UP! I’ll be with you in a second.

Ask any Cronenberg admirer (and I have been on a number of his films) what his stories are about and invariably you’ll get the same answer that David himself always gives in one context or another. I imagine him making movies 20 years from now and seeing a transcription of the following:

INTERVIEWER: So, Mr. Cronenberg, you’ve just created what many consider the definitive science-fiction epic in history. Tell us your perspective on it.
CRONENBERG: Well, it’s about the flesh.
INTERVIEWER: Well, thanks a lot Dave. In our green room you’ll find some chianti and fava beans. Enjoy you nutball.

Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Crash and eXistenZ are all rooted in examinations of the flesh and the mind. Spider can be viewed as how the flesh can warp the mind from the earliest stages of puberty and on through adulthood. And? Cronenberg is so intent on placing us into Dennis’ head that there’s no time or reason for us to have a point-of-view from our own heads. Should we be identifying with or admitting some form of maternal lust in our lives? Should Dennis’ actions be any less serious because he was “sick”? When the truth is finally revealed, it’s just one big “so what?”

Any overall meaning that Spider’s story may hold certainly doesn’t condemn the extraordinary work on the part of the cast by transfixing us right into this journey. Ralph Fiennes is the counterbalance to Geoffrey Rush’s manic, stammering pianist in Shine. Fiennes is all introverted, wearing four layers of clothing to conceal everything and muttering incoherently to himself. His characters continue to challenge him and compel us to watch, proving he’s one of the great actors of our time. Equally impressive in a more outward performance is Miranda Richardson, who has to create multiple versions of Spider’s Mum reflections; motherly, brazen and stern in all different incarnations. Gabriel Byrne is also terrific in a performance that means a lot more by the film’s climax.

Puzzles aren’t hard for me to solve. Unlike the Lynchian mazes of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, puzzles are meant to be put together. No piece left unplaced. At home on the dinner table it may be a beautiful landscape or a giant bowl of fruit, but as beautiful as it may look it still doesn’t compare to the real thing. If someone handed you a key piece of evidence torn into a thousand pieces, even if you meticulously taped it all back together, you may have the solution, but are you any closer to caring why or how it happened? Cronenberg has opened the box and laid out an intriguing one on the table. But after the satisfaction of snapping in the last piece, you may find yourself asking…”And?”

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originally posted: 03/31/03 06:06:18
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Palm Springs Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Palm Springs Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/07/10 little jerry John Neville's performance is one of the most poignant ever. 5 stars
2/23/07 dmitry fantastic...Cronenberg at his best 5 stars
11/19/06 Ionicera it stays with you 4 stars
11/07/05 K. Sear A little cry, even for Cronenberg. Still entertaining though. 4 stars
8/19/05 ES Lynch and Cronenberg must have gone to the same school for making crazy movies that suck 1 stars
9/24/04 Roxy Smith excellent 5 stars
7/30/04 Josh Standlee So unscary, it would pass as a made-for-TV movie on PAX! 1 stars
6/07/04 Ryan Clark Either you get it or you don't - to truly appreciate the film, listen to the commentary. 4 stars
5/11/04 The More You Know scatterbrained insomniacs worst nightmare 3 stars
2/23/04 Naturezrevenge Typically good cronenberg from the canadian Lynch. 4 stars
10/03/03 Mickey With A C Art or crap? CRAP 1 stars
8/22/03 Bernie Chabel Not easy to watch but oh so rewarding 5 stars
8/14/03 Jeannie Karlsen Loved Ralph Fiennes performance (as always), love Cronenberg films (as always) 5 stars
5/22/03 Elendil Very atmospheric,. Pity about the SPOILERS provided by E. Childress. Review ~= plot outline 4 stars
4/07/03 Byrneoholic I like the movie 4 stars
3/26/03 rue the whirl it's pretty crappy i guess 4 stars
3/11/03 thejames its ok i guess. 2 stars
3/06/03 Spy It isn't very good... 3 stars
1/14/03 marzio great director, great actors Fiennes Richardson and Byrne, great film 5 stars
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  28-Feb-2003 (R)



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