Dennis Cleg, a.k.a. Spider (Ralph Fiennes), is prematurely discharged from a mental institution and roams the streets of London haunted by images from his past. Convinced that his father (Gabriel Byrne) murdered his mother (Miranda Richardson, who plays three roles in all) in order to move his rented girlfriend into her place, Dennis returns to the confused scenes of his childhood, trying to piece together the truth from the different layers of reality ominously unfolding and collapsing around him.
Spider sees David Cronenberg, the master of body horror, trying his hand at a kind of mind horror. An eerily perplexing journey into the life of a deeply troubled schizophrenic, it immerses the audience in a world where the lines between reality and imagination are not only blurred but completely indistinguishable.
There is an emphasis throughout the film – right from the evocative opening credits, with their blending of Rorschach images onto the faded, peeling walls of a working-class home – on the impact of the domestic on the main character’s psychological development. The cerebral appeal of Spider, which shares a closer affinity to the work of Samuel Beckett than to the fleshly themes of so many of Cronenberg’s earlier films, is not in finding the answers, but rather in determining the questions. This is the rare film that shows a great deal of respect for the audience’s intelligence and their powers of deductive reasoning.
Freudian in its thematic undertones and plot mechanics, Spider is essentially a mystery, though it does not adhere to the standard Hollywood genre conventions. Very few clues are given and the audience is never led to a single conclusion as to what really happened.
The world we are privy to in Spider is a very quiet one, occasionally punctuated by the mumblings of Fiennes’s severely disconnected soul as he attempts to make sense of a nonsensical perspective. Filled with tightly enclosed spaces that seem full of secrets, clues and possible answers, the milieu of the film is both stiflingly liberating and optimistically imprisoning – a maze that continually leads back in on itself.
Spider was named one of the best films of the year by many Canadian and international critics, and was also picked as one of Canada’s Top Ten of 2002 by an independent, national panel comprised of filmmakers, programmers, journalists and industry professionals.