In the first shot of Spider, Cronenberg’s latest, a train pulls up, and as the passengers detrain and hurry up-platform in a long line, the camera moves forward past them until it reaches Dennis ‘Spider’ Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), the last one off the train and the slowest moving by far. It’s a sign that this man moves at a different pace than everyone else. The film, likewise. It crawls and stalls for the first twenty minutes or so, lingering on Spider as he settles in to his new life in a halfway home and performs the arcane little rituals of the schizophrenic.
So twenty minutes in, the viewers are passing out in their seats, breathing noisily through their mouths. Twenty minutes in, I’m wondering what were those crazy French thinking? this is an unmitigated disaster, this is shot after shot of a guy sitting around smoking and muttering to himself. Twenty minutes in, however, Spider begins to reminisce.
[Spoilers ahead, now.]
He’s writing it all down in his carefully hidden little notebook, in his crunched-up scrawl. At first you think he’s turned stalker as he shuffles up to a kitchen window and stares in at a domestic scene. Before you know it, he’s right in there with them – eek! But of course it’s they who are right in there with him, in his jumbled-up web of a mind (excuse the Rick Groenism). The domestic scene is his own: loving mother (Miranda Richardson), boozer father (Gabriel Byrne) who ignores the good mom and takes up with a whore. But wait – the whore is also Miranda Richardson. Nothing is clear from the point of view of a schizophrenic, of course.
In the end, though, everything is clear. Every last detail is warranted. It’s a tangle, to be sure, a puzzle (another recurring image), but in the end the pieces fall into place. So much so that you blame yourself for not paying enough attention during the slow scenes. But not before a film packed with wizardly storytelling and powerhouse acting has run its course. And there’s one particular bit of magical crash-bang old-school cinematics that had us all jumping in our seats and tweaking our necks. It even woke up the mouth-breathers.
In the end, this picture has a very specific focus. It has no broad argument about technology, like eXistenZ or Videodrome or Crash. But what it sets out to do, it does ingeniously. And isn’t that what it’s all about, man?