Director David Cronenberg has led his loyal fans down some pretty spooky corridors, including the telepathic netherworld of Scanners, the violent sibling rivalry of twin gynecologists in love with the same woman (Dead Ringers) and the drug-haunted imagination of William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch). So it comes as no surprise that he now chooses to get inside the tormented head of a profoundly psychotic Englishman who's been released from the asylum a bit earlier than we all might have hoped.
When first we see him, Spider (not to be confused with last summer's leaping red Spandex superhero) is stumbling off a London commuter train, his hair a matted tangle, his clothes disheveled, murmuring to himself. It takes us a moment to realize that this is Ralph Fiennes, the dashing aviator of The English Patient and the soulless Nazi monster of Schindler's List. So touchingly disordered is the picture he presents that the actor simply doesn't register. Wearing four layers of dirty shirts and clutching a battered yellow suitcase, the man shuffles off to a grim halfway house in a gloomy industrial neighborhood. Once installed by the no-nonsense matron, Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave), in a plain upper room bereft of decoration or hope, Spider begins to think, begins to see or imagine things, and we along with him. We're about to begin a terrible journey down into hell.
For all the mental anguish Russell Crowe transmitted as the delusional mathematician in A Beautiful Mind, Fiennes' portrayal of a schizophrenic proves even more vivid, because Cronenberg has managed to make it even more interior. The disease does not, as common belief holds, equate with multiple-personality disorder. Rather, it's a tragic shattering of the mind, and Cronenberg captures the terror. That's because we behold everything in Spider through the tortured man's eyes -- the dark, desperate details of the present (he hides his crumpled notebook full of incoherent scribbles under the bed; he fears the looming gas tank across the street) and the bizarre traumas of his childhood, in which his unhappy working-class family may (or may not) have been violently destroyed by adultery and murder. This is a puzzle we're not meant to solve and neither, unfortunately, is the protagonist.
Understandably, Dr. Freud oversees the proceedings. Seen in visions and flashbacks, ten-year-old Dennis Cleg (played to scary effect by young Bradley Hall), whose loving mother (Miranda Richardson) calls him Spider, obviously has a thing for Mum. By the acknowledgment of Cronenberg and novelist/screenwriter Patrick McGrath, the other silent presence in Spider is playwright Samuel Beckett, the radical pessimist who gave the world Waiting for Godot. Between the Freudian implications of the Cleg family psychodrama (wait till you meet Dad, played by Gabriel Byrne) and the Theater of the Absurd undertones in Spider's bleak plight, there's plenty to consider here: The nature of madness. The qualities of human perception. The isolation of humankind in an uncaring world.
In the somewhat sunnier regions of A Beautiful Mind, John Nash comes to win the Nobel Prize. Spider Cleg is dumped on the street without medication or a future -- an orphan caught in the dark web of his own fantasies. It won't be long until we, too, can no longer distinguish between a mother and a crude tart down at the local pub or between the tart and the keeper of a halfway house. Or even between a father and his son.
Absent the usual array of Cronenbergian special effects, or even the commonplaces of language, Fiennes is left to draw his portrait of a mind in agony through tics and gestures, the subtle implications of body language, the expressiveness of hands and eyes in motion. This is, of course, any ambitious actor's dream -- to render a character compelling and full after being denied the usual tools of the trade, and Fiennes rises to the challenge as any master would. We may not remember a word Spider says -- every mangled syllable is an ordeal for him -- but he emerges nonetheless as one of the most eloquent film characters in recent memory. The terrors of mental illness are much on the screen these days (I'm thinking also of the very fine but mostly ignored Norwegian comedy Elling, soon to be remade by Hollywood) but it takes an especially fine-tuned director and an inventive actor to cut as close to the bone as Spider does.
It also takes a writer who knows what he's talking about, and McGrath fills the bill. The English-born author of compelling psychological thrillers such as The Grotesque and Dr. Haggard's Disease was raised on the grounds of Broadmoor Hospital, Britain's largest institution for the criminally insane, where his father was the medical superintendent. After moving to Canada, he worked in a mental-health clinic before taking up his career in fiction. McGrath's collaboration here with Cronenberg and Fiennes couldn't be more fruitful. Spider is a beautiful piece of work and more terrifying, in its way, than Cronenberg's several forays into technologically based horror/fantasy. The human mind in torment always fascinates.