Directed by David Cronenburg. Canada. 2002.

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Spider, the powerful and haunting new film from Canadian director David Cronenberg, takes us on a journey through a disturbed man's psyche - a story in which we are uncertain to the end about what is truth and what is fiction. Dennis Clegg (Ralph Fiennes), who was nicknamed "Spider" by his mother, is released from psychiatric custody where he has been a schizophrenic patient for twenty years. He takes up residence at a halfway house in a bleak, run-down section of East End London, the same neighborhood where he grew up. As he wanders the shadowy streets, Spider begins to recall his fractured boyhood as the only child of an abusive plumber (Gabriel Byrne) and his doting wife (Miranda Richardson). He sees himself as a ten-year-old boy reliving the traumatic situations that led to his confinement. 

Based on a novel by Patrick McGrath, and enhanced by Howard Shore's evocative score, Spider has, in the director's words, "the feel of Samuel Beckett confronting Sigmund Freud." Nothing is what it seems. Cronenberg shows the adult Spider lurking in the background of the childhood scenes, re-experiencing his past like a living ghost who has come to observe the dead. This man can only confront his past from a perception distorted by illness, and we see the events only from his point of view. Through him, Cronenberg asks us to think about whether memory is "creative" (as in the plays of Harold Pinter), or an objective fact fixed in time.

Fiennes turns in an Oscar-caliber performance of amazing strength, one that allows the viewer to get inside his head and feel his pain intensely. Though he mumbles in a virtually inaudible way throughout, Fiennes is never false or "over-the-top" as in other recent portrayals of schizophrenics. Equally outstanding is Miranda Richardson, who plays both Spider's mother and the floozy his dad brings home from the pub. Cronenberg's vision is bleak and unsparing, using mood and expression rather than dialogue to achieve its effect. This is not a film about schizophrenia or how the mentally ill can rise above their disability, but about the lonely journey of all men to discover the truth about themselves. Spider is a brilliant tour-de-force and a gut-wrenching experience. 

Howard Schumann
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