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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Tangled Web
by Donald Levit

It’s best not to compare films and their books, two different mediums. And too different. Therefore, resist the temptation to read the 1990 Patrick McGrath novel Spider for answers to questions left perhaps purposely dangling in David Cronenberg’s film version, albeit from the author’s own screenplay. After the screening, several of us discussed the film and especially the ending, and its implications, in an elevator and on the snowy street. Anyone’s guess was as good as anyone else’s – again, perhaps the writer and the director’s purpose, as well.

Really too incoherent, dysfunctional, confused and possibly dangerous to have been released, Dennis "Spider" Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) arrives in depressing industrial 1980’s London after spending most of his life in an asylum. Wearing five shirts, a jacket and stained overcoat, walking painfully, mumbling unintelligibly, he goes to an assigned room in a halfway house run by a Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave). Paranoiacally secretive and downtrodden, rejecting the desperately friendly advances of fellow resident Terrence (John Neville) and the cold, professional, maybe ironic admonitions of the landlady, "Spider" retreats and pencils intriguing meaningless ciphers in a hidden notebook.

He shuffles around the neighborhood, with its odious gasworks tanks, sluggish canals, workers’ houses and garden allotments, and at first strikes the audience – for the film streets are empty of passerby witnesses – as pathetic but yet threatening, as he observes pub patrons and families through curtained windows. Things are off kilter, however, and we realize that what the man "sees" – what we, too, see – are actually scenes within his mind, projections of a troubled, troubling psyche. Not exactly "unstuck in time" and space like the Vonnegut-Hill Billy Pilgrim, the character is actually a silent, unseen observer of his own childhood and the difficult family relationship among his parents (Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson) and his own silent mamma’s-boy self.

Apparent mysteries are explained, or are they? Striking physical resemblances between people past and present become logical, or do they? Scenes of thirty years ago are re-enacted or repeated, or are they? One does not know for sure, nor is it certain whether this uneasy ambiguousness is intentional or merely the result of pretension or lack of artistic control.

Why, for instance, "Spider"? Of course, the child’s mother does tell him a story of sparkling dewy country webs when she was young but could as logically have remarked ant hills or mole tunnels or hunts and nicknamed the son "Ant" or "Mole" or "Foxy." As for close-ups of shoes or his lifelong string webs (actually more cat’s cradle than arachnoid designs) and the needless elaborate string device for activating a gas stove, they are extraneous, misleading flimflam.

A film is not to be judged by the novel from which it comes but, rather, stands or falls on its own merits. Spider as movie stands pretty tall, for an hour, with suggestive character and mood studies and location shots scoured up in the U.K. and a Toronto studio. (Fiennes’ minimalist interpretation soon grows annoying, but it does strike home on modern cities’ growing hordes of pitiful lost souls.)

Bearing in mind, however, this director’s track record of fun but unsubtle gore-horror-personality transference movies, I expected this one would revert to form as well. The last third betrays the texture of the whole, leaving the taste of a more pretentious Damien or so. It has been done much better, many times, as for instance in the 1972 The Other or, if you like your pubescent psychoevil straight, The Bad Seed. Here, on the other hand, the ending is just another twist masquerading as sincerity or socio-economic concern, what H.G. Wells saw as a simple dead cat left on the awesome altar of the grand cathedral.

(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "R" for sexuality, brief violence and language.)

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