A Web of Narrative Trickery Snares Connoisseurs of Horror

David Cronenberg’s Spider , from a novel and screenplay by Patrick McGrath, provides the perfect title, if not quite the ideal subject, for an auteur who, in 14 feature films, has created his own genre consisting of joyously energetic horror and nonjudgmental illustrations of abnormal psychology.

The first thing to note is that Spider is not a sequel to one of Mr. Cronenberg’s most misunderstood masterpieces, The Fly (1986), a lyrically bizarre love story in which one partner (Jeff Goldblum) accidentally morphs into a fly as the other partner (Geena Davis) looks on lovingly but helplessly. As Molly Haskell noted at the time, it’s the story of many marriages, in which one party changes and the other doesn’t.

Spider is comparatively literal: It attempts to probe a child’s schizophrenia by following around the mumbling, stumbling, seemingly derelict man the child has become after years of institutionalization. The exact nature of the childhood trauma is revealed only at the very end.

As the production notes tell us: “When screenwriter Patrick McGrath began writing the novel Spider in 1988, the question arose, ‘Who should tell the story?’ He decided the character of Dennis ‘Spider’ Cleg, who was present for all these terrible events as a child, should tell the story in later years. McGrath then speculated further, ‘From there it was a short step to arrive at the question, what if Spider’s memories were all wrong? What if he is remembering his childhood in a very distorted and skewed way? Why should he be distorting his memories? What if he isn’t able to get access to the truth of his childhood? And the more these questions began to intrigue me, the more I realized that I was dealing with a schizophrenic mind. And what I initially started out with turned into a full-scale investigation of the schizophrenic mind, and thus Spider developed.”

Mr. McGrath is well qualified to enter the world of the mentally troubled. He was brought up on the grounds of Britain’s largest institution for the criminally insane, Broadmoor, where his father was the medical superintendent. Later, as a young man, Mr. McGrath worked in a mental health-care center in Canada before he turned to writing.

Mr. McGrath and Mr. Cronenberg have somewhat different takes on the metaphorical implications of the word “spider.” As Mr. McGrath recalls, developing “the complexities of the story-the evasions, denials and distortions, he began to see the character of Spider weave a web of falsehoods around himself in order to disguise the truth about his childhood from himself. And there was a certain physicality about the boy that was spidery. He even continued to weave these webs into manhood; hence the novel was called Spider .”

Mr. Cronenberg’s associations for the word are characteristically more hopeful and lyrical than Mr. McGrath’s. As the director put it: “It’s the traditional metaphorical use of the web as something that ensnares you but that is also beautiful, and that you can weave one of your own as well as someone else’s.”

Though the novel is set in the 1930’s and 1950’s, the filmmakers decided to advance the time-frame of the film to the 60’s and 80’s-a grown-up, deinstitutionalized Spider would be even more relevant in more recent times, when the mentally ill were discharged in droves from mental hospitals with little or no capacity to function, much less thrive, in the outside world.

But aside from Spider and his halfway-house buddy, Terrence (John Neville), we see no other discharged mental patients. In fact, Ralph Fiennes, for all his resourcefulness as an actor, seems at wit’s end carrying the burden of being so much alone on screen-the only character the audience has to look at for what seems like long stretches of time. The “webs” that Mr. Fiennes’ Spider tediously assembles are made from pieces of string that he laboriously picks up throughout the film.

The opening shot of the film unleashes a steady stream of passengers disembarking at a suburban London train station. After their energy, vitality and vivacity have been ostentatiously established with showy camera movement, a bedraggled figure, looking like something the cat dragged in, shuffles off the train, hopelessly out of step and out of tempo with the bustling horde that preceded him. Mr. Cronenberg thus inserts the stylized figure of Spider into an image of contemporary reality. But when Spider reaches his destination, the empty streets and uniform house fronts evoke a dream-like mood that persists through the rest of the film.

Lynn Redgrave’s Mrs. Wilkinson, the stern and impatient mistress of the halfway-house, answers Spider’s knocking with a preemptory question about why he’s late. Spider is already so beaten down in appearance and behavior that any rudeness toward him feels like a violation of his dignity as a human being. And so things go in their shambling way, until Spider begins literally walking into his past life as Boy Spider (Bradely Hall), the suspiciously alert son of Mr. and Mrs. Cleg (Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson). The family lives in squalor. Mr. Cleg drinks; both his wife and son plead with him to come home from the tavern, but he takes up instead with a shameless pub wench named Nora (Tara Ellis). Spider begins setting up webs in his bedroom and ingenious death traps downstairs. Then comes a murder-but who is the victim?

The “shocking” solution to this mystery is somewhat similar in its hallucinatory deceptions to the twisted narrative in Robert Altman’s Images (1972). As I wrote last week in my review of He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not , filmmakers always gamble with an audience’s sympathy when they resort to narrative trickery. I would argue that Mr. Cronenberg and Mr. McGrath have lost their gamble, though I can’t help honoring their high-minded intentions.

Sexual Healing

Neil Hunter and Tim Hunsinger’s Lawless Heart , from their own screenplay, opens with a funeral reception for Stuart, a gay restaurant owner in Maldon, Essex, an English seaside town where Mr. Hunter grew up. In the first of three interlocking stories, each of which shares the same funeral setting, new relationships are formed and old relationships re-examined.

The first story centers on Dan (Bill Nighy), the late Stuart’s straight brother-in-law. Dan is a bit of a ditherer, though not without wit, which he displays when he’s accosted by Corrine, an attractive Frenchwoman (Clémentine Célerié). In a subsequent encounter at the village store, she invites him for a tête-à-tête dinner at her home, even though he’s made it clear that he’s a married man. After nervously accepting the invitation, Dan stands Corrine up and instead attends a party-minus his wife-where he finds himself seduced by a floozy who proceeds to give him oral sex in his car.

The filmmakers are rather hard on Dan, subsequently placing him in two other awkward situations. The first and more outrageous finds him gingerly interrogating Nick (Tim Hollander), Stuart’s mourning ex-lover, about the degree of promiscuity permitted in their sort of relationship. Nick answers politely, with quiet dignity, that he was always faithful to Stuart-leaving Dan with egg on his face, the butt of the joke. Dan’s behavior takes a mercenary turn when he tries in vain to persuade his wife not to turn over Stuart’s inheritance-money Nick needs in order to continue to operate his late lover’s restaurant. Dan’s humiliations reach their apex when, at yet another social occasion, he comes face-to-face with Corrine again. She simply glances at him quickly, with an expression of amused contempt for his cowardice, leaving more egg on his face. All in all, a strangely one-sided and sadistic beginning to a supposedly romantic multiple narrative.

Back we go to the funeral reception, in which the same scenes are shown from the point of view of the deeply saddened Nick, who later finds a naked grocery check-out girl (Sukie Smith) in his bed; she’s sleeping off a hangover, having been abandoned by her lover after a night of revelry. As Nick gets to know her, he becomes infatuated with her, even though they’re both aware of his sexual orientation. The closer they come to realizing that their liaison cannot last, the more tender their feelings become for each other.

The third story is told from the point of view of Tim (Douglas Henshall), a straight drifter friend of Stuart’s who falls in love with a local girl (Josephine Butler). But the local girl has unfinished business with an old boyfriend, who re-enters the scene and realizes that he might have lost her forever if she hadn’t been magically transformed by the love of another man.

Tim is clearly the outsider among the three male protagonists: He has to hitch a ride and borrow a tie to participate in the funeral festivities at all. Though he experiences a personal setback with the girl of his dreams, he resolves to become more serious about his ultimate ambitions rather than spend the rest of his life as the late-arriving guest at everyone else’s party.

In a revealing article about the film’s two writer-directors in the Sunday Daily News ShowTime section, it was noted that Messrs. Hunter and Hunsinger have made one previous feature film, the low-budget Boyfriends , about gay couples at a country-house weekend, and that both are farmers’ sons, one born in Essex, England, and the other in Wichita, Kansas.

In the article, Tom Hollander, who plays Nick, describes the film as follows: “It involves ordinary life, the quotidian, the everyday. There are no car chases, no killings, nobody’s fantastically beautiful, nobody’s exceptionally anything, anything at all. Refreshing for a British film, it’s neither costume drama nor a portrait of the down-at-the-heel and disenfranchised. This is not about the class system for once.”

A fair enough summary as far as it goes, but it omits the not-so-subtle sexual politics at work. Mr. Hollander’s character, with his bisexual capabilities, would have been inconceivable in a mainstream movie until very recently. And the women in this film have a terrific influence on the lives of men, both straight and gay-a nice touch. Lawless Heart is good, sophisticated, warm-hearted fun (poor Dan excluded), and should be seen.

A Web of Narrative Trickery Snares Connoisseurs of Horror