Thursday, August 30, 2012

Director Spotlight #9.17: David Cronenberg's Spider

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 47 (C+)

Spider is the kind of film I want to love but can’t. It’s easily one of David Cronenberg’s most unique and experimental films in recent memory. It features a fantastic cast: Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, the late John Neville, the late Lynn Redgrave. It has an intriguing opening. It shows Cronenberg at the top of his game aesthetically. And while the film is certainly one of his least well-remembered as of late, it has a handful of passionate defenders. Yet for a number of reasons, Spider can only be chalked up as an admirable failure, a film whose phenomenal form can’t disguise the inanity of its content.

Dennis “Spider” Cleg (Fiennes) has been released from a mental hospital and has taken up in a halfway house run by Mrs. Wilkinson (Redgrave). Spider can barely function around other people- he can only walk with a  great deal of concentration and he has an even harder time talking to people. Spider is haunted by an event from his past involving his beloved mother (Richardson), his hated father (Byrne), and a “fat tart” named Eva (Richardson again) who his father took up with after murdering his mother.

Stylistically, Spider is perhaps Cronenberg’s most challenging film. The film takes Cronenberg’s detached austerity to almost perverse levels, slows down the pacing to an even greater degree than Crash, and features an off-kilter, minimalist score by Howard Shore that mirrors Cronenberg’s more minimalist approach. Spider almost feels like a more experimental and formalistic version of the British miserablist films that are released seemingly every year (last year’s Tyrannosaur took the slot). Cronenberg’s bone-dry approach is easily the most interesting thing about Spider. Particularly nice is how Cronenberg places Fiennes’ adult Spider inside his childhood memories rather than just having him recollect his thoughts. A great director is at work here, and that he’s mixing it up in well-worn territory deserves admiration.

The film is filled with tricky performances as well: Redgrave has to appear simultaneously caring and tyrannical, Byrne has to try not to make his stern father character too much of a monster, and Richardson is tasked with playing two diametrically opposed characters, the idealized mother and the whore (and that’s before Spider’s instability grows so pronounced that he starts imagining Redgrave’s character as Richardson in disguise). All actors perform admirably under the conditions (Richardson is particularly good as the wounded mother), but at the center of it all is Fiennes’ performance, which doesn’t quite work. On one hand, Fiennes is fiercely committed to his character’s cracked perspective, haunted nature, and physical mannerisms. On the other hand, it’s an intensely distracting performance. The role doesn’t come off as self-important grandstanding the same way many portrayals of the mentally ill do (see: Geoffrey Rush in Shine), but at the same time it’s a ferociously mannered performance that’s hard to connect to emotionally. In a sense, it fits into the group of Cronenberg protagonists who don’t know how to behave like humans and who can’t control their lives, but like the rest of the film, it’s hard to get past how self-serious and aestheticized it all is. It’s not completely boring, but it’s not totally alive either.

That said, Cronenberg and Fiennes’ committal is at least admirable. The actual plot and thematic material in Spider is, for lack of a better way of describing it, completely idiotic. Spider’s difficulty to distinguish reality from a fantasy of his own making (his dad didn’t really kill his mother) fits in with Cronenberg’s pet themes, but rarely have they felt so schematic. It’s pretty easy to see where the film is headed because there’s only one possible place the film could head- a revelation that Spider is crazy and imagined everything. Why is it so predictable? Because he’s imagining events he wasn’t present at. The film fits in with the personality-driven puzzle box movies of the late-90s and early 2000s (see: Mulholland Dr., Fight Club, Memento, Femme Fatale), but it’s far weaker than any of these films because it’s impossible to connect to the protagonist and the film’s ultimate conclusion is so obvious.

What’s Spider’s problem? Just about one of the dumbest Oedipal complexes in the history of film. He’s in love with his mother and he hates his father and when his mother shows affection towards his father he starts to imagine her as the whore he saw in a pub once when he went to collect his father. It certainly explains why the imagined scenarios of the father’s infidelities are so idiotically crass, but it doesn’t excuse them. And apparently he was so convinced that this couldn’t be his mother that he killed her, only to reimagine his past as someone else’s fault so as to come to grips with it. Cronenberg directs the hell out of the movie, which makes it all go down a little bit easier, but at the end of the day, it’s hard to get past it: this is fucking stupid.  

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