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Ralph Fiennes weaves a tangled web.

© 2002, Sony Pictures Classics
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David Cronenberg's films tend to involve the transformation of the human mind and body through technology-enhanced mutation. This time, however, the main focus of Cronenberg's twisted vision is not on some weird gastric parasite, or diabolical applications of military technology. In his latest film, "Spider" (IMDb listing), Cronenberg delves into the broken mind of a man suffering from untreated paranoid schizophrenia.

"Spider" is the story of Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), a schizophrenic who was recently released from a mental institution and is now living in a half-way house run by a cold, authoritarian caretaker (Lynn Redgrave). Dennis -- given the nickname "Spider" by his mother when he was a child -- is clearly not well, as his disheveled appearance and strange behavior is indicative of a desperately sick man haunted by delusions and fragmented memories. Spider spends hours mumbling incoherently to himself and scribbling strange, alien hieroglyphics in his journal.

Spider wanders in a haze of confusion, as he attempts to piece together his life through recollections of his unhappy childhood. He watches his past unfold before his eyes: a sad, lonely childhood with his drunken, neglectful father Bill Cleg (Gabriel Byrne), and his eternally melancholic mother (Miranda Richardson). We witness strange, sometimes disjointed scenes that represent Spider's youth, but we're never sure which scenes actually happened, and which are fabricated or mixed up in his head. To make matters worse, Spider is imprinting his mother's face upon several female figures that were pivotal to his young development. It is this oedipal obsession that is compounding Spider's already fragile recollection of his shattered childhood.

Ralph Fiennes creates a remarkably subtle and doleful performance. As Spider, Fiennes' portrayal of debilitating insanity is convincing, as he roams around lost and muttering, carrying on sad little conversations with himself. A perpetual countenance of fear, confusion and anguish is etched upon his dirty face. You can sense Spider's desperation in his pleading eyes.

Gabriel Byrne is excellent as Spider's fractious, neglectful father. But it is Miranda Richardson's performance that eclipses everyone else's effort. Richardson deftly handles several roles throughout the film, whether it is Spider's doting mother, or a wretched, self-loathing barfly, whose murderous glares slice into the tender and vulnerable younger version of Spider. Ignoring Richardson's performance is a perfect example of why the Oscars are nothing more than a capital-driven, self-congratulatory wankfest for studios who are able to lavish scads of cash upon their own movies when campaigning for an award.

Composer Howard Shore ("Lord of the Rings") creates an unsettling, subtle score that perfectly compliments the pervasive darkness that represents Spider's unraveling mind. Peter Suschitzky's cinematography thoroughly realizes the gloom and shadows that reflect Spider's constant state of foreboding and anguish.

"Spider" is a wonderfully realized effort from the horror/sci-fi auteur Cronenberg. Although the material is stereotypically dark like many of his works, Cronenberg moves into new territory with this film. He has left behind the grotesque external deformities in his other work for the inner deformities within Spider's tortured psyche. The methodical pacing of the movie will surely make fans of amphetamine-driven movies like "XXX" squirm in their seats. But for those who possess patience and an appreciation for the subtleties of character-driven drama, "Spider" will surely ensnare you in its first-person depiction of the nightmarish prison that is Spider's diseased mind.

Filmfodder Grade: A-

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