David Cronenberg's Spider begins with a credit sequence of paint-peeling images suggesting a Rorshach test, followed by a prolonged, unsettling tracking shot the once and future Master of Suspense surely would have appreciated. The camera moves steadily alongside an arriving train, as a stream of average-looking people disembark. At the far end of the platform, off of the train steps the film's unfortunate, alien anti-hero: the stranger among us.
This compulsively tentative schizophrenic, played to the Method hilt by Ralph Fiennes, is Dennis Cleg, or as his mother called him, "Spider." Cleg shuffles off to a halfway house, shambling and muttering all the way. As if his squalid new quarters aren't bad enough--with Lynn Redgrave's nasty den mother and John Neville's nattering resident--the neighborhood seems to overshadow and encroach on Cleg's every step. A tall, imposing gasworks overlooks well-trod but curiously empty passages including a hideaway alongside a viaduct.
Soon, the siren-like pull of these places resolves into puzzle-piece flashbacks of Spider as a moony, traumatized child (Bradley Hall) treading lightly around his intimidating parents. Spider shrinks under the dour masculinity of his father (Gabriel Byrne) and frightfully, hopelessly submits to the swoony hold of his mother (Miranda Richardson). In an unnerving stylistic conceit, the adult Cleg lurks on the edge of his memories, conjuring them into substance around him and parroting the dialogue of his youth. Another bold play allows a shrewdly effective Richardson to accumulate characters, compounding the mystery of woman for a boy who never grew into his body.
Spider is certainly masterful, but Cronenberg's rigid formality is both a strength and the film's only liability. Cronenberg locates a certain grotty elegance, and the withholding, slowly unfolding narrative employs admirable restraint of tone and mood. Infusing an otherwise simple story with a stimulating air of mystery, Cronenberg shows and tells with a series of overlapping, symbolic images in line with the film's Freudian bent: fetal submersions, an octopus puzzle, spiders and their webs. The easy recognizability of these images--though they allow the audience to play along--puts the audience at an observer's arm's length, a valid place but a less provocative one than the immersive psychosis of the "other" off-kilter David, Lynch.
Still, Spider throbs with the authentic, paranoid complexity of schizophrenia, well-observed by screenwriter Patrick McGrath (adapting his own novel), Cronenberg, and a top-of-his-game Fiennes. Neville's mentally-disturbed mentor tells Cleg a fable of a man who--in trying to avoid scorpions--inadvertently ran into his worst nightmare. Likewise, the film's hero attempts to organize an escape from a life of physical and metaphorical decay only to trap us with him, face to face with the fearful truths of our stubborn reality.