The narrator of Patrick McGrath’s novel, Spider, is a man recently released from an asylum and staying at a seedy halfway house in 1950s London. Or maybe it isn’t a seedy halfway house. Maybe it’s a perfectly decent, clean and efficient one, because we can never be sure of what we’re being told, inasmuch as our narrator is obviously insane.
Dennis Cleg, nicknamed “Spider” for various reasons that become clear as his tale unfolds, spends a lot of time mulling over his past, trying to reconstruct some crime that was committed, some cataclysmic event that split his life in two. Since he so carefully filters and rearranges reality to protect his brittle sense of self, it takes awhile and some reading between the lines before it becomes clear whether he was the crime’s bystander-victim or its perpetrator.
McGrath, who has been pegged a “neo-gothic” writer, is the author of five novels (including Dr. Haggard’s Disease and The Grotesque — which was filmed, poorly, in 1995 as Gentlemen Don’t Eat Poets, with Alan Bates and Sting) all of which depend, for their effectiveness, on their creator’s muted sense of the macabre. They’re horror stories where the shadowy places are in the mind and the monsters are free-roaming psychological kinks. They’re creepy tales for adults.
The combination of McGrath, who has adapted his novel for the screen, and director David Cronenberg may seem felicitous when first considered, but their sensibilities are actually poles apart. Cronenberg has always been aggressive in his pursuit of visual horror and has never flinched at provoking disgust. There is, even in a relatively restrained scenario like Dead Ringers (in my opinion, his best film), an ongoing undercurrent of something repulsive, which works its way to the surface. For Cronenberg, horror is in the body, in its mutable flesh and its susceptibility to invasion and parasites. For McGrath, horror is more localized and generally less squishy — it’s mostly inside your head.
The resulting collaboration between these two is one of the most low-keyed movies in its director’s canon. In lieu of conveying Spider’s reimagining of the world via voice-over, Cronenberg has opted instead to give us a visually subjective representation of his tormented interior life. It’s a complicated place, but also very narrowly focused. The book has been updated from the ’50s of Spider’s present and the ’30s of his twisted recollections to the ’80s and ’60s respectively. But it hardly matters, since the world in which he moves is timeless and eerily underpopulated.
The film begins impressively enough, with water-damaged walls looking like evil Rorschach tests and the huge gasworks near the halfway house looming like some sinister god, but after a while it starts to become oppressive. You want a little air to come into this shrunken and sullen world; you want a little of the perspective that Spider so grievously lacks.
Spider is played by Ralph Fiennes and it’s the sort of tour de force where an actor impresses by suppressing his trademark characteristics. Fiennes has been very good at playing golden boys with sour interiors (Quiz Show, The English Patient, Onegin), but as Spider he has to play somebody so withdrawn as to be nearly catatonic, someone for whom the slightest movement or word comes with the greatest effort. Although he constantly mutters under his breath and makes crabbed entries in a small notebook using some kind of personal hieroglyphics, his efforts to communicate with the real world result in soft-spoken half-sentences. Again, you want the character to crack open a little, but it isn’t meant to be.
For the flashback sequences, McGrath and Cronenberg have decided to have Spider just walk into his past and watch as the events unfold, a skulking and unacknowledged presence. There we observe along with him as young Spider (Bradley Hall), a budding schizophrenic, becomes convinced that his father (Gabriel Byrne) has murdered his mother (Miranda Richardson) and replaced her with another woman (also played by Richardson). Here Cronenberg’s strategy of using muted realism sans special effects pays off, since we’re never let in on which parts of Spider’s recollections are real and which are fantasies until the denouement.
It’s all a little unsatisfying in the end — so much art and effort so expertly applied to so cramped a tale — but it’s also an original, if maddening, depiction of madness. It gets under your skin and one wouldn’t expect less from this particular director.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].