If you thought A Beautiful Mind made schizophrenia look like a higher form of creativity, you may want to check out Spider, which makes it look like, well, a mental illness. His hair shooting out of his head as if charged with electricity, Ralph Fiennes stars in this psychological drama about the tricks the mind can play on us, especially those of us who already have difficulty telling the difference between fantasy and reality. But "stars" isn't really the right word. Fiennes, mumbling to himself throughout the movie, delivers the most self-effacing performance of his career. He's playing a guy who's resided at a mental institution since he was 10 but who just got released into London's East End. And it's amazing how quickly Fiennes fades into the crumbling streets, the dilapidated houses.
Spider's return to the neighborhood he grew up in brings back a flood of memories, which appear on the screen as he walks and sits among them. There's his mother (Miranda Richardson), a soft-spoken saint. There's his father (Gabriel Byrne), a philandering drunk. And there's his father's mistress (Miranda Richardson), a loudmouth tart who, upon the untimely death of Spider's mother, takes her place. Finally, there's Spider (Bradley Hall), a little boy with a predilection for intricate webs of string. You can consider that a metaphor, since the young Spider also has a predilection for intricate webs of lies. Which is to say, he's already showing signs of the disease that will eventually overtake his mind. And we have to wonder, as his memories unspool, which ones actually happened and which ones didn't.
"The movie is a projection of Spider's mind," director David Cronenberg has said, which may explain why the streets are all deserted and the colors have all faded to browns and grays. Cronenberg is known for exploring the intercourse of humans and machines, as in The Fly and Crash, but here he chooses mind over matter. Spider is a long, strange trip down Memory Lane, with our hero both revisiting and revising the traumatic events of his childhood. Did you notice, for example, that Miranda Richardson plays both Spider's mother and his father's mistress? Are they perhaps the same woman? Has Spider's memory split the Madonna from the whore? The movie neatly ' perhaps too neatly ' resolves its oedipal conflicts, but the conflicts themselves have the power to ensnare us in their silky patterning.