It was more than a great, grisly joke when, in The Fly (1986), director David Cronenberg cast himself as an obstetrician in his heroine’s nightmare: It was an astute self-portrait. Cronenberg’s movies are distinctive not merely for their gruesome sights—their insectoid protuberances, pulsing orifices, and demonic-baby placentas—but for their director’s unflinching, even clinical perspective. Cronenberg is like a surgeon with no bedside manner, the kind who’d tell a terrified patient, “My, my, that is one beautiful tumor.” Is this lack of empathy a strength or a weakness? Maybe both. There are times when Cronenberg’s cool scrutiny can be suggestively in sync with his main characters: the “Psycho-plasmics” therapist (Oliver Reed) and his avid patient (Samantha Eggar) in The Brood (1979), the inventor (Jeff Goldblum) regarding his mucky excrescences in The Fly, the twin gynecologist junkies of Dead Ringers (1988). But there have been more recent “art” films— M. Butterfly (1993), Crash (1996), and perhaps the new Spider (Sony Classics)—in which Cronenberg’s emotional neutrality is a liability. He doesn’t seem to have the temperament to follow his characters into the realm of the irrational—to bend or curve or twist his cinematic language to go deeper into their psyches. The difference between Cronenberg and David Lynch is telling: Lynch’s imagery seems piped in directly from his dreams, Cronenberg’s from some medical-journal paper on his dreams.
The odd thing is that Cronenberg regards Spider as an exercise in subjective filmmaking, and by rights it ought to be. The movie, from a screenplay by Patrick McGrath (based on his first-person novel), focuses on Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), a schizophrenic who has just been released from a psychiatric hospital in which he has spent the last 20 years. Dennis, also known as “Spider,” stumbles off a train, then creeps through a bleak London suburb to a shabby boardinghouse for the mentally disabled, run by the imperious Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave). He spends his days wandering the industrial neighborhood, eating in tiny cafeterias, staring at the local gasworks, and writing in a furiously crabbed hand (the words resemble hieroglyphics) in a journal that he alternately stashes in a bag in his crotch or under the floorboards of his room.
More significantly, Spider wanders through his own childhood, regarding his boyhood self (Bradley Hall) in conflict with his alcoholic father (Gabriel Byrne), a plumber; his breathlessly demure mother (Miranda Richardson); and a rotten-toothed cockney slattern (also Miranda Richardson) called Hilda who becomes his father’s lover and eventually takes his mum’s place. It isn’t long before the cackling Hilda begins to pop up in Mrs. Wilkinson’s stead, as well. In one shot, Spider is seen poring over a complicated puzzle, doubtless meant to echo his psychological struggle to piece together these elusive fragments of memory. But it’s only a brain-teaser for poor, simple Spider. The audience gets what’s going on about half an hour into the movie—and there’s a long hour left.
Spider is being hailed as a masterpiece, and it’s certainly the most fluid and entrancing film of Cronenberg’s brave career. The cinematographer, Peter Suschitsky, has aimed for Lucien Freud in the dank, monochromatic blue-grays—a sort of rumpled Expressionism, the plainness set beside deep and spooky pockets of gloom. Gabriel Byrne is both a frightening Dark Father and an ordinary decent bloke trying to do his best with a sick kid. Miranda Richardson is stupendous—even more compelling as the sainted mum than the libidinous Cockney slut. Fiennes’ Spider is a man who could not walk and chew gum at the same time: Every gesture is slow, deliberate, the product of enormous uncertainty. But the long, long shots of Fiennes in his shapeless overcoat, mumbling inaudibly, embryonically curled even in motion, elicit feelings of pity, not empathy. The image of his Spider huddled over a plate of food beneath a menu board that ends in “Bubble,” “Liver,” and “Liver Sausage” is worthy of L. Freud and Edward Hopper. But it isn’t subjective, really. It’s suitable for framing.
It’s possible that Cronenberg’s detachment is deliberate, that he sees Spider as another of his scientist-protagonists attempting to discover some sort of equation to explain his own fate. Perhaps it’s Spider-Boy we’re supposed to feel for, not Spider-Man. The editor, Ronald Sanders, creates a stunning perceptual continuum between the young and old Spiders, but Cronenberg just can’t get into the boy’s head. Bradley Hall has ears like jug handles and a pale, young/old visage; he looks like the imp on the chest of a supine Gothic heroine. He’s a great camera subject, but he’s only marginally more involving than the older Spider.
The movie left me so cold that I had to go back to the novel to figure out what gave birth to this peculiar delusional-memory play. McGrath grew up in a hospital for the criminally insane, where his father was the medical superintendent. (That’s a childhood to which I can strongly relate: My grandfather, with whom I spent a good deal of my youth, was the medical superintendent of the Allentown State Mental Hospital in Pennsylvania, and we lived on the grounds of the hospital.) McGrath was fascinated by some of the incurables he saw, and he set out to write a book that would both re-create and elucidate the illness.
Here’s a passage from the last part of the book, where the delusional narrator and his youthful self have merged:
Other nights I stayed in the house and experimented with lengths of string dangled from my window down to the knob on the gas stove. Once when I was twitching the string and trying to get the knob to turn I felt my mouth fill up with small birds, which I crunched between my teeth, and then their feathers and blood and broken bones started to choke me, and I retched and retched but nothing came up. Another time I found a bottle of milk by the canal and in it was the putrefying corpse of a man my father had murdered the night before, and I opened the bottle and drank the milk. Another time I found a baby with a hole in the top of its head, and through the hole I sucked up and swallowed everything in the baby’s head until its face collapsed like an empty rubber mask. Later I remembered that this was how spiders devoured insects. That night I accidentally fell asleep and my father came in and compressed my skull with a plumber’s wrench, and when I woke up my head was pear-shaped; this was so that it would fit in the sack they’d prepared for me to be murdered in.
This is pretty evocative stuff—some would say it’s right out of a David Cronenberg movie! Which is why I find it odd that after making a name for himself in squishy surrealism, Cronenberg should choose this particular story to tell in a restrained, “classical” manner, with no special effects whatsoever. No half-human spiders, no shredded birds, no deflating heads, no gargantuan webs, almost nothing beyond the quotidian spectacle of Miranda Richardson playing a cockney. The inner life of the young Spider is just screaming to be taken to the next level—but Cronenberg mulishly won’t go there. What goes wrong with Spider is pretty basic: The audience has no idea why it was made.
Certainly feverish subjectivity is more common these days than rigorous detachment; and it might be that Spider is more effective as a clinical portrait of schizophrenia than many films with tilted, woozy frames and flurries of hammy point-of-view shots. Frankly, though, as a case study this isn’t exactly Freud’s Dora: The Madonna/whore thing is Psych 101—Week 1. More to the point, the movie has no emotional payoff. Once the web of Dennis’ past is unraveled, Cronenberg can’t wait to roll the credits: What ought to have been a protracted and agonizing coda lasts a few moody seconds. We have watched Spider piece together his puzzle and glimpse his mythic crime—but then we see nothing more: not his tragic awareness, not his retreat into soothing madness, nothing. The end of Spider has the feeling of a Lancet paper, a theory demonstrated, a logician’s Q.E.D. There’s even a hint that Cronenberg is relieved to have his protagonist return to the world of the clinic, where everything is cleaner—where one can contemplate madness through one-way glass, a million miles away.