David Cronenberg’s character studies are typically bleak affairs, often detailing the compaction of troubled characters as they fold down into themselves, suffering grievous bodily deformation in the process. Whether those changes occur as a consequence of personal folly, as in The Fly, or from a mixture of internal demons and external conspiracies, as in Videodrome, tends to vary. Yet those collapses also invariably reveal other things, illuminating both specific character psychology and the way broad systems of power impress themselves upon the individual. The same is largely true of Spider ― which paces a Möbius strip of mental illness backed by a steadily mounting sense of dread ― although the film takes a different tack, attempting to explain how it’s thoroughly hollowed-out protagonist reached his current state of mental disrepair.

The story concerns Dennis Cleg Ralph Fiennes, who returns from an extended stay at a mental institution to a sort of intermediate care home. Whether this place is actually situated in his childhood neighborhood, or the illusion of such is a consequence of Cleg’s still-fractured state of mind, is difficult to determine. Whatever the case, his shambling daily walks lead him to locations that remind him of prior events, which play out again as he stands by and observes, watching with the same nervous trepidation as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. These encounters are invariably traumatic, mostly arrayed around actions committed by his abusive, philandering father Bill (Gabriel Byrne).

Bill emerges as the dominant figure in the younger Cleg’s life, his bullying demeanor turning the domestic sphere into a place of tension and strife. This behavior leads to one murder, organized around a possible trick in perspective, again amplifying Cleg’s status as an unreliable narrator. Another, committed by Cleg himself, eventually follows, with the film for the most part bracketed within these two poles. The primary intent seems less focused on the details of this narrative than the way it refracts the internal landscape of a brain hopelessly warped by trauma. In a fitting twist on the Freudian psychology that underlies its structure, that final act of violence is aimed not at the oppressive father but refracted elsewhere, a self-destructive blow that confirms the impossibility of accessing easy recourse to such treatment.

This is a key facet of a movie whose entire architecture seems dedicated to refusing easy explanations or classifications. The results can be frustratingly grim and oblique, but as with all of Cronenberg’s work, there’s something worth wrangling with at the center. At its most basic level, Spider can be seen as another confirmation that there’s no such thing as a definitive answer, the weird webs of twine that give Cleg his arachnic nickname serving as an ironic counterpoint to the supposedly ordered logic that governs our mental landscape. In fact, the point at which psychological dissolution begins cannot be determined, and in the end hardly matters, a state of confusion the film steadies by maintaining a firm baseline of compassion for its addled protagonist.

It’s this empathy that makes Spider feel like a labor of love, an odd classification for a film steeped in such an unremitting pall of darkness. In fact, Cronenberg and others involved with the production did not receive salaries, in order to complete the project as they saw fit on a limited budget. This was a gamble that didn’t entirely pay off, with the movie floundering at the box office, and now standing as one of his least-seen works. A lot of this has to do with the repellent visual aesthetic, which imagines England as a land of utter bleakness, defined by the dank and oily ambience of lonely chip shops and polluted industrial waterways. The rest is probably thanks to the raw, unstinting portrayal of mental illness, which strips away many of the usual flourishes and distancing effects. Yet it’s because of these qualities that Spider stands out as another key to the Cronenberg oeuvre, a sui generis study of terminal isolation that rejects straightforward solutions in favor of a visceral analysis of process and effects.

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