Fans of David Cronenberg's squirmy imagery may feel partially disoriented by "Spider," which contains neither teeth-firing guns nor vaginal orifices gaping from men's chests. The closest thing to the director's trademark biological subversion is a scene in which an English housewife favors her family with a meal that looks like a thick, gelatinous eel coiled tightly in a bowl. And even that quietly revolting dinnertime scenario may be a delusion.
What "Spider" has -- in spades -- is an unutterably sad representation of mental illness. Star Ralph Fiennes, in a landmark performance of purposeful unintelligibility, staggers and mutters his way through the pathetic role of Dennis "Spider" Cleg, a mental patient released into the cruelly neutral environment of a boarding house located in his old neighborhood. Allowed to wander the streets unaccompanied, "Spider" takes a running inventory of his tortured past, revisiting the sites (and sights) of former humiliations. The movie envisions him as a spectator to his own history, skulking in doorways and peering in windows while the imagined ghosts of his father (Gabriel Byrne), his mother (Miranda Richardson) and his prepubescent self (Bradley Hall) rejoin their dance of familial disintegration.
The crux of the endeavor lies in divining just which domestic cataclysm sent Spider spiraling away from normalcy and into an adulthood of crippling anxiety (or, conversely, how much preexisting schizophrenia may have exacerbated his troubles in the first place). As an enigma, it's a bit too easy to crack, with Patrick McGrath's clinically paced script (adapted from his novel) sometimes failing to remain far enough ahead of the audience. But that's about the only criticism possible of "Spider," which is strewn with clever subtleties that play on the delusional main character's unreliability as a narrator. To wit: Keep your eyes peeled for the frequent appearances of Richardson -- and not always in her expected role.
Andrew Sanders' production design elevates Spider's dismal, dreary surroundings to the stuff of high art. Even a recurring web motif comes across as iconic rather than facile. But the film is no mere visual exercise, putting highly empathic acting in the service of an involving subject. Fiennes will reap the most notice for his largely wordless portrayal; still, one shouldn't discount the strong showing by John Neville (star of "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen") as a fellow boarder who reaches out to Spider with all the humane concern his own madness will allow. Watching those two try to effect something approaching genuine communication is the tragic sideshow that helps give Spider its dramatic legs.