A Study in Boredom: Spider
I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. It has been absolutely murder wading through these last few films, and I can’t say I’ve enjoyed it in the slightest. Spider is the last of the “second shit period”, and thank the lord this is all out of the way. I’ve waded through drug trip nightmares in Naked Lunch, imbecilic transvestite-shagging weirdos in M. Butterfly, a veritable torrent of filth in Crash and the utter shitness of Existenz, yet this is the only film of this fallow period that I would describe as boring.
And boy is it boring.
Spider is based on a reasonably successful novel about mental illness. I imagine that this was nightmarish to adapt, because it seems that vast tranches of it would involve the main character sitting at a desk writing, trying to decipher his own foggy memories. It was, for some reason that completely escapes me, billed as a horror film. It’s nothing of the sort. If I’m being generous, I would say that it is a hybrid of genres, an amalgamation of kitchen sink working class misery, intense psychological drama and social commentary. The fact that none of these genres work properly here and therefore the film can never transcend its pompous and self-regarding cleverness. This is a bad film.
Dennis “Spider” Cleg is a recently released (on care in the community) nutjob. He moves back “home” to a really grubby working class tenement, ruled with an iron rod by Lynn Redgrave’s tyrannical landlady (eventually supplemented in Spider’s shattered mind by his archetype of all evil- Miranda Richardson’s tart/ mother). Spider, however, is flagrantly unequipped to deal with the real world and his confused past gradually begins to overwrite his present as we’re “treated” (ha!) to a “Spider’s eye view” of the events leading up to the tragedy that defined his life. What this actually consists of, is a staggeringly boring working class pastiche, briefly enlivened by a bit of grubby sex and murder, where adult Spider sits in the corner watching and partially mumbling the narration to the action on screen.
This film was clearly a labour of love for all involved. Fiennes found the property and shopped it around many different directors before Cronenberg agreed to do it, and once involved in the project, the Canadian agreed to postpone his fee. Fiennes and Richardson both also worked effectively for free. Personally, I happen to think that everyone involved in this was overpaid, and if it had cost me anything to see it, then I’d have been livid. Having said that, Fiennes is really, really good as Spider. It’s a performance of twitchy intensity, but it’s so intense and so inward looking that I really failed to warm to the character, and furthermore it’s a performance that actually alienated me from proceedings. Richardson is good as the tart/ archetype, and probably has the most fun in the film, and Gabriel Byrne is surly and unpleasant as Spider’s father.
The problem with this film, as I’ve briefly touched on, is that it is both pompous and boring. The novel was, I suspect, intended as some kind of social commentary on the Tory’s disastrous Care in the Community programme. As such, we’re presented here with a clearly mentally ill person, who is obviously a danger to those around him, living in facilities flagrantly not designed for him. There’s a grubby and inadequate atmosphere to this film, and there is nothing resembling levity that could momentarily supply some actual enjoyment to proceedings. It’s just so relentlessly grim and bleak and after a while I just couldn’t take it any more, and had to turn it off for a break.
Secondly, the vast majority of the “action” takes place in Spider’s memory. From early on, it’s transparently obvious that he’s badly deluded and grossly paranoid. His memories are also, obviously, false. There is no way in hell that he could possibly have been present when his father fixes Richardson’s plumbing, or the grubby sex scenes and whatnot. As the tart supplants the mother in his mind (both are played by Richardson, so it’s a tad confusing), the only reasonable explanation that the viewer is left with is that the kid was every bit as nutty as the adult that wears 5 shirts.
Finally, the end of this attempts to be tragic, but misses the mark by so far. It’s meant to be this big curtain tearing back moment, when the audience is finally let in to the fact that the young Spider was nuts. However, by the time it comes it’s obvious both what’s going to happen and what has happened in reality. This, therefore, creates a crushing anticlimax, and in a film as boring as this one, then it’s never going to be more than an enormous failure.
Nevertheless, this is another obviously well made, but eventually terrible film. Cronenberg artfully draws the imaginary working class London, and the performances are all really good (even if off-putting). The problem, I suspect, is that this is another film where his clinical style doesn’t fit the material. Spider is simply not effective as a psychological thriller, and as a direct result of this, we’re left with a dull and tedious treatise on the flamingly obvious.
Overall, I do not recommend this film. I do think it’s marginally better than Existenz, but so is being kicked in the bollocks by an ostrich, on the grounds that Existenz is entirely worthless and Spider is almost entirely worthless. Luckily, this is the last of these “difficult” films that I have to wade through, and I’ve got A History of Violence next. I give Spider 1 Chang, purely for the performances.
Until next time,
The order so far: