A character-driven study of a psychotic man arriving in a halfway house after an extended stay in an insane asylum, Spider fills its running time with Ralph Fiennes' efforts to parlay the role into a tour-de-force Oscar bid: not as obnoxious as Meg Tilly's "childbirth" pantomime in Agnes of God, but overdone, rather, in terms of the amount of time devoted to it.
Given the main character's madness, aided by flashbacks of a childhood traumatized by an apparent crime coverup, the story is not much more than a longer version of the synopsis we saw in the Coming Attractions trailer the week before at the same theatre. He revisits places where the childhood scenario played out (or so he believes: it's admittedly suspicious that, in his madness, he "remembers" scenes, including the brutal murder at the center of Cleg's obsession, occurring between the adult characters when he's not there to witness). The child Cleg confronts his father about the latter's alleged criminality, as we saw in the trailer, and begins to incorporate his spider's web fixation into a revenge plot against the apparent culprits.
The flashbacks, hopefully taking us somewhere out of the main character's immediate environment, occur after what seems like a half hour of Cleg's twitching, scribbling, groveling in dirt, wearing four shirts, and all the other dutiful affectations of an art-theatre method actor "doing" madness. So much character and atmosphere for such an extended viewing period led me to ask myself, where is the story of this picture? Will something from the past, or from outside, finally come along and excite this picture out of the dull ritual we're seeing?
The "Spider" theme is recalled by the design of the film's repetition of patterns in wallpaper, clothing, broken glass, and, most blatantly, the steel framework surrounding a water tank outside Cleg's (Fiennes) window, all more or less reminding viewers of a spider's web. The gimmick is clever when it's subtle, reminiscent of the "X" motif in Scarface from seventy years ago. Another self-consciously affected style attempt is in the unrelenting darkness of the picture in every scene -- absolutely every scene. It's downright irritating after a while. As Roger Ebert once pointed out regarding a similarly challenged film, the art of motion picture has reached a low point when the audience cannot perform the primary act of looking at the screen.
The film finally does incorporate most of past and present into a sort of denouement, but it's not enough to make a complete story, let's say convince us that we're in a different place than we started; nor can we trust it entirely to be the truth, as it supposedly takes the mask off what we thought we were watching. Take the existing material, and reveal a twist we didn't realize was in front of us all along. I think rather this film draws us into one story and then slaps us back by telling us that that "reality" was a lie.
Ironically, out of such a dissatisfying film, the acting performances given by Miranda Richardson are all the more remarkable when one realizes what has been happening onscreen. I think the filmmakers did a disservice by releasing to the IMDb here the fact that she played more than one character in the film. Hopefully most readers will turn to this site to check on details and viewer comments __after__ seeing the closing credits.
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