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Ralph Fiennes puts the finishing touches on some needlework between breakdowns.

© 2002, Sony Pictures Classics
All Rights Reserved

I hate it when a director I love makes a film I don't. But this is the case with David Cronenberg's "Spider" (IMDb listing). I haven't read Patrick McGrath's book, and the film is good enough to make me curious about how certain passages might appear on the page, but all in all "Spider" left me cold.

Of all the sins I might be prepared for when I go to see a new Cronenberg film, outdated storytelling isn't one of them. But that's exactly what he serves up here. There's no more psychological depth to "Spider" than there is to Hitchcock's "Spellbound" or De Palma's "Obsession" (and certainly far less than there is to Polanski's "Repulsion"), and Cronenberg's movie possesses none of the stylistic grace of those films--the freshest of them over 20 years old. Yet "Spider" wants more than anything to be a psychological film of decidedly Freudian execution. Maybe Cronenberg accomplishes that. Who cares?

Enter Ralph Fiennes as the mysterious lunatic, Dennis Cleg. Fiennes is extraordinary, and I sense that we have yet to see the height of his potential on the big screen. He does what he can with the thin script he's been given to work with here. But his movements are over-directed, and his character--incapable of speech through most of the film--has almost no cinematic qualities for us to cling to, unless you count a nicotine-greased index finger and the compulsion to wear four shirts at a time. Okay, maybe his proclivity to build spider webs of twine is vaguely cinematic, but mostly it's just contrived and overbearing.

What I find most extraordinary (and take a close look at that word, thanks much) about the way "Spider" unfolds is that only someone of Cleg's intellect would be surprised by the ending of the film. Does anyone watching this movie actually believe that Cleg's father murdered his mother and replaced her with an alehouse harlot? It's absurdly obvious that all of this takes place inside Cleg's mind. The craftiness by which Cleg's mother is in fact killed makes for a nice bit of cinema, but it's muddled by the context surrounding it. And by the time her demise really does come about, we've already guessed it and are biting our nails not out of suspense but boredom.

I wanted to like "Spider." Really I did. "The Dead Zone," after all, is one of my favorite films. But I'm beginning to see that "The Dead Zone" was a fluke in Cronenberg's career. Not that his grotesque horror films aren't wonderful; they're some of the best in the genre. In fact, maybe he should stick to making movies that slurp, suck, bleed and drip. He does it like no one else (there is, incidentally, a bizarre scene in "Spider" in which Cleg's prostitute-cum-mother proudly presents a large, seemingly unprepared eel for dinner; but all the scene did was make me wish I was watching "eXistenZ"). What I'm saying is that "The Dead Zone" may have been Cronenberg's one bull's eye of the mainstream dramatic form. "Crash" and "Spider" aren't even on the same dartboard.

Filmfodder Grade: C-

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