Spider

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Spider

Cast:

As David Cronenberg's Spider opens, a camera rolls through a crowd disembarking under the gray arch of a British railway station. It focuses on one face after another fixed in the defensive blank look common to people on public transportation; finally, it settles on one face that doesn't, and can't, wear that expression. The face looks doubly familiar. In real life, it belongs to Ralph Fiennes, but for this movie, he shares it with all the mumbling, shifty lost souls that most people avoid, either by crossing the street or staring down at a newspaper. Released from a long stint in an asylum as a fidgeting wreck scarcely able to finish a sentence, and capable of walking only with the most intense concentration, Fiennes has returned home. Or, more accurately, he's returned to take up residence in a halfway house overseen by Lynn Redgrave, a caretaker who learned long ago not to indulge her charges' whims. "It is a loud world, and this is an island," remarks fellow resident John Neville, Baron Munchausen no more–his tall tales of foreign lands trail off without ending. But for Fiennes, the place is a loud island, as well. Alone in his filthy room, beneath layers of clothing that offer no protection, he starts to think about the past that brought him there, and fills a notebook with scribbles written in an alphabet of his own invention. Letting the past mix with the present, Cronenberg, working from Patrick McGrath's adaptation of his own novel, flows the years together and allows Fiennes to wander through scenes of his childhood, watching father Gabriel Byrne shift his attention from prim wife Miranda Richardson to a notorious "fat tart" who haunts the local pub. Richardson also plays that role, with a fairy-tale malevolence, setting up a twist that's not really a twist for a film that takes place in the deafening echo of a psychotic snap. Cronenberg has made the mutations and failures of the flesh his directorial signature, but even from the start, his films have had just as much to do with the limits of the mind. In Spider, Fiennes plays a Cronenberg protagonist taken to a devastating endpoint, so unable to cope with the demands of the body and so wrecked by the awareness of sex that the best imaginable world still looks like a Freudian nightmare. With greater deliberation and more concentrated focus than he's ever used before, Cronenberg slowly draws his audience into Spider's world. Were he only trying to remark on that world's creepiness, Cronenberg would still succeed brilliantly, if coldly, but his sympathy makes the film. Pitying or fearing Fiennes would be easy, but it's much harder to experience the ever-widening pool of sadness that his life has become. Spider accomplishes that by putting him on the same train with the rest of us, and letting it roll slowly toward a terminal station.

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