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Love wounds in Spider and Open Hearts

There's no mutant flesh in David Cronenberg's new movie, no underarm phalluses, no diseased bodies—only a dis-eased mind, trying its damnedest to avoid coming to grips with the source of its disturbance. True, there's an insect fantasy that, as with every product of the famously twisted Cronenberg imagination, operates as a metaphor for beauty and danger, for the allure and terror of sex and death. But you won't see any rampaging black widows here. Indeed, at first blush, Spider, which may be the most downbeat horror movie ever made, looks set to unfold as a classic specimen of realist English miserabilism.

Released from the mental institution where he has spent two decades, Dennis "Spider" Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) takes up residence in a bleak halfway house in London's East End, where he grew up in the 1960s. As run by Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave), a brisk ballbuster with no interest in her charges unless they fail to toe her rigid line, the establishment has little to offer him beyond the friendship of a broken old gent (played with painful dignity by John Neville) who understands all too clearly why Spider insists on wearing four shirts at once. "The less the man," he tells their disdainful landlady, "the more the need for clothes."

Dirty and unkempt, sucking on cigarette butts, mumbling incomplete phrases and snatches of songs, scribbling hieroglyphics in a journal he keeps under the rug in his room, Spider seems a composite of every downtrodden homeless person created by the well-meaning, disastrous community mental-health movement of the 1980s, which loosed the mentally ill onto the streets with no concern as to whether they were capable of caring for themselves. In a nod to Samuel Beckett (Spider even wears the playwright's electrocuted hair), Cronenberg and his production designer, Andrew Sanders, have turned the East End, an immigrant neighborhood that teems with life and noise, into a flat, featureless, largely silent landscape (the movie has next to no score) that mirrors Spider's appalling alienation. Fiennes has allowed himself to become a career sad sack (neither Kristin Scott Thomas, in The English Patient, nor J. Lo herself, in Maid in Manhattan, could wipe the pained grimace off his face), and his gift for lavish suffering can come off as portentous—even his lauded turn as the tortured concentration-camp commandant in Schindler's List made me want to reach out and tickle him. Here, though, he's restrained and compelling, abject yet with a touch of steel in his eyes, signaling there's more to this character than mere pathos. When we look at Spider, we see him as the world sees him. When we see with him, we confront (in ways that he can't) both what has diminished him and what fuels his desperate energy. The movie keeps switching between Spider as subject and as object. Its triumph is we don't always know which is which.

Spider, so named by his mother because of his childhood fascination with the insects and the webs they spin, roams his early haunts: the dingy tenement where he lived with his parents; the archly named Dog and Beggar pub his father frequented; and "the allotments," those tiny plots of sooty, government-sponsored urban land where the yardless British working class could grow sooty vegetables and flowers—and get a bit of quiet nookie on the side. Each of these three places holds a particular terror for Spider as he peers through doorways and windows into the hellhole of his adolescent memory. He's spinning webs, and whether he's remembering or rewriting the script of his life won't become clear until the end of the movie, but the inflamed state of Spider's mind reflects Cronenberg's abiding concerns with the fine line between the normal and the depraved, especially when it comes to the covert sexual politics of family life. The movie hints at an unhappy marriage between the father (Gabriel Byrne), a plumber, and the timid, oppressed mother (Miranda Richardson) the boy worships. There are broader hints yet of disturbance within Spider (played as a child with goofy malice by moon-faced newcomer Bradley Hall), who festoons his room with webs made out of string and watches with mounting fury as his father cheats on his mother with a braying blond from the pub. Suffice it to say that the marvelously versatile Richardson plays more than one role in Spider, and that, taken together, they span the range of male ambivalence—fear and desire, tenderness and anger—toward women.

Spider was adapted from his own novel by Patrick McGrath, who grew up at Broadmoor, England's largest institution for the criminally insane, where his father was medical superintendent. The story is programmatically Freudian in its focus on the oedipal drama; from a psychoanalytic standpoint, Spider is a clear case of arrested sexual and emotional development. If oscillating between delusion and reality is the particular agony of the psychotic—he doesn't know what's true—Cronenberg's homage to Beckett implies that it has also become the condition of the late 20th century. Overloaded with unreliable information, we, too, have no way of judging what's true. As always, though, Cronenberg identifies more with the sick than with those who presume to judge them. Like his tormented hero, he finds the spider's web at once lethal and lovely—a beautiful prison, an imaginative expression of the life force. Without in the least sentimentalizing Spider—I can't think of a recent movie that treats the schizoid mind with such delicate sympathy or, bravely, such saving wit—Cronenberg has identified the promise and the danger of Spider's fantasy life. He has made him an artist.
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