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SPIDER ****

By GUY FLATLEY


CAST: Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, Bradley Hall, Lynn Redgrave, John Neville, Gary Reineke, Philip Craig

DIRECTOR: David Cronenberg

SCREENWRITER: Patrick McGrath

 

Dennis Cleg—for reasons clear to his keepers at a state institution but not, at first, to us—is known as Spider. Adrift in a fog of medication and inept therapy since the tragedy that shattered his adolescence in the sixties, Spider is suddenly scheduled for a change. We’re in the enlightened eighties now, and in its pragmatic wisdom the British government has decided to set free its mental patients and give them a chance to sink or swim in the mainstream. Thus Spider, a schizophrenic subject to frequent hallucinations, is handed a piece of paper with a strange name and address, escorted to a train, and told he is on his own.

Having wandered in a daze for the greater part of his first day of freedom in over 20 years, Spider finally reaches his destination and knocks on the door of what has to be the most inhospitable halfway house in all of London. Managed by a cold-eyed, domineering woman, the house is for disturbed men only, and its puke-yellow walls and creaky corridors seem on the verge of decay. Yet these rooms, with their muffled voices, flickering shadows and jabbery conversations, provide a tingle of pleasure to Spider, a kind of perverse familiarity. He has literally returned to a neighborhood he knew as a boy, and to a past that is slowly resuming its shape. It’s as if a door to a hidden chamber has opened and a warm wind is pulling him into powerful dream, an inescapable nightmare strong enough to have driven a boy to madness.

The memories that torment Spider surface in jagged fragments and neither he, nor we, can anticipate their duration or their intensity. Nor can we exactly determine their veracity, since they are filtered through Spider’s feverish brain. Did his drunken, crudely sexual father really leave his mother for a woman he picked up in a bar? Why is Spider so shaken by the recurring image of his mother, dressed in a clinging slip and smiling a secret kind of smile? Most baffling of all, how can Spider recall the precise details of a grisly murder he could not possibly have witnessed?

The thematic threads of "Spider"--loneliness, fear, madness, familial violence, the search for significance in a world without meaning--have been woven by David Cronenberg in films ranging from "Scanners" to "The Dead Zone," "The Fly," "Dead Ringers," "Naked Lunch" and "Crash." But the director reaches a new peak of brilliance here, seamlessly blending his bizarre imagery and insights into a surreal, harrowing shocker. Working from Patrick McGrath’s skillful adaptation of his own novel, Cronenberg has drawn an extraordinary performance from Ralph Fiennes in the seemingly unplayable role of Spider. Except for the agitated gibberish he frequently mouths, Fiennes has nary a line of dialogue, but he speaks volumes with the fear and the fire in his eyes and with the anguished, longing motions of his body. Astonishing, too, are 10-year-old neophyte Bradley Hall as the young Spider; the incredibly versatile Miranda Richardson as both the seductive mother and the barroom tramp; Gabriel Byrne as the lusting father; and Lynn Redgrave as the woman whose halfway house is not a home.

And, yes, as you will see--there is a very good reason Spider is called Spider.