Adapted for the screen by Patrick McGrath from his 1990 novel, Spider is the story of Dennis "Spider" Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), a thirtysomething paranoid recently released from a mental hospital to a Spartan half-way house run by a creepy landlady, Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave). We meet Dennis as he creeps off a train in a gray English station and makes his way through dreary lanes to his new home. He mutters as he walks and occasionally stops to pick things up off the pavement. At first we think he's spotted money, but eventually we understand that he's just pocketing pebbles and odd bits of string. We've passed this guy on every street in the Western world, we think. We wonder if the film is going to turn into a social tract decrying the atrocity of releasing the insane to fend for themselves in a society they can barely perceive. It isn't.
Dennis has the unwashed, ill-fed appearance of the walking dead. His teeth and fingers are stained yellow from the smoldering cigarette always clinched between them. Mrs. Wilkinson's house seems the perfect place for him, cold and empty like a tomb. In his bare room, Dennis frets with insomnia on his narrow bed or stands at the dresser to scribble mad reflections into a notebook. Is he a frenzied artist at work on a novel or a long poem? Perhaps. But if so, he's writing it in a language of hieroglyphs nobody but he can understand.
Outside in his new neighborhood, Dennis begins to spy on a mother and child, and gradually we realize that the half-way house is located near where Dennis grew up. He's not spying. He's visiting old sights and remembering. The woman is his own mother (Miranda Richardson), and the boy is the child she nicknamed "Spider." Here lies the core of Dennis' distress, we discover, and it's Oedipal. Mrs. Cleg is soft-spoken and nurturing. Dennis' plumber father Bill (Gabriel Byrne), meanwhile, is irritable and loutish, forever rushing through dinner to bolt off for the local pub; Mrs. Cleg sometimes has to send her son to fetch him home.
The pub is peopled with raucous drinkers, and young Dennis is traumatized by three screeching Harpies, one of whom bares her breast to taunt him. Dennis is disgusted that this buxom blond woman named Yvonne (also played by Richardson), seems to elicit a lustful wandering eye from his father. Events that follow detail a sordid and notably unsexy affair between Bill and Yvonne, but we aren't sure for a time whether Dennis has followed his father and witnessed his encounters with Yvonne or has only imagined the two of them together in a fever of pre-adolescent sexual fantasy.
At the film's end, when all the pieces of the puzzle have been slipped into place, we will certainly focus on the understated but effectively creepy scenes of Oedipal desire. In one, mother and son speak to each other in an atmosphere of suggestive confidence while Mrs. Cleg carefully and provocatively applies her lipstick. In another, Mrs. Cleg stands in a clingy white slip before her mirror, smoothing her hands over her body, asking her son if he thinks his father will like the way she looks. And then, in the pivotal scene, we see Dennis watch from his window as mother and father, off to the pub together, stop for a smooch and a gigglingly protested grope just inside the fence to their yard.
Spider is notable for the intricate care of its construction and for the intensity of its performances. Fiennes and Richardson both perform without vanity. Most of Fiennes' work is done without dialogue, all with the body and with darting eyes. Richardson moves from the muted matronliness of Mrs. Cleg to Yvonne's rotten-toothed tartiness with the smoothness of a piston in a brand new engine. Byrne is superb, too, convincing both as a neglectful brute and as a desperate father and husband.
For Cronenberg fans, of which I have never been much of one, this will probably hit the mark. I think the filmmaker hits the targets he aims for. But he didn't aim for my heart. And I'm afraid I saw the resolution of his plot from rather too far away.