Eight-legged Monster

Spider spins an engaging tale of mental duress

Whether or not those stained walls that open Spider are supposed to remind us of Rorschach tests — and regardless of how much is to be made of that initial image of a train entering a tunnel — it's impossible to deny there's some major psychological hoodoo going on here.Spider is not only a movie about the human mind: it's a movie that takes place almost entirely within that mysterious realm, in the sorely damaged brain of the film's protagonist. And since this is a David Cronenberg film, you can probably guess that what we'll find there is bound to be more than a little discomfiting.

For all the creepiness, though, Spider is a fairly subtle and subdued film, at least by Cronenberg standards. Not to be found here are the exploding heads, weird bio-protrusions and gurgling pools of primordial ooze that pop up so frequently in many of the director's signature films. Spider belongs to the "other" Cronenberg, the creator of relatively restrained outings such as Dead Ringers, M. Butterfly and even, to some extent, Crash. Films that are generally considered more "mature" than the director's earlier, in-your-face efforts.

There's certainly some truth in that, just as it's hard to deny that Spider is itself an elegant and impressive piece of work. At the same time, I can't help but wonder if this admirable but somewhat icy offering might not have benefited from some ooky gooky viscera thrown in here and there, or maybe even a talking anus or two.

The body attached to the damaged brain showcased in Cronenberg's new movie belongs to Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), affectionately known to his mum as Spider in the numerous flashback sequences skillfully layered throughout the film. We immediately recognize Cleg as a casualty, a human wreck, from the moment he emerges from that aforementioned train, shambling and disoriented in the midst of a happy crowd striding briskly through the station.

Spider's just been released from a long stay at an asylum and is en route to a halfway house located, by some awful fluke, not far from the home where he spent his extremely messed-up childhood. It's unclear if it's just proximity prompting the flood of memory that accounts for most of the film, but what's all but indisputable is that the present of this movie exists mostly as a pale shadow of the past. What's even more inescapable is that we simply can't tell how much of that past actually happened.

Was there ever a more unreliable narrator than Spider? Probably not, although our guides in Naked Lunch, Videodrome, eXistenZ and a few other Cronenberg movies come close. It's nearly impossible to know what's real and what is invention in any of these tales, and that goes double for the tangled web spun by the raging schizophrenic in Spider.

Past and present, memory and the moment, fact and fiction blur into one dense, foggy nightmare as Spider steps out of one room and into another, where he enters a world inhabited by himself as a child. The adult Spider clings to the wall or sits silently in the corner observing the younger version of himself lovingly brushing his mother's hair, being bullied by his father or being traumatized by a clutch of cackling tarts down at the local pub.

In less time than you can say "Psych 101," little Dennis is exhibiting classic Oedipal warning signs, compartmentalizing all women as either saints or whores and mentally transforming his demure homemaker mother into a series of vulgar, vile floozies. (Miranda Richardson, sporting a variety of wigs and accents, plays all of these women — and, from the looks of it, teeth that, for the trollops, have been filed down to sharp little points.) In Spider's fractured mind, he occasionally even stands in for his father in his trysts with the nastiest of these harlots.

Spider's not just a lost soul; he's a ravaged and tormented one. The walls always seem to be closing in on him, thanks in no small measure to the way that Cronenberg chooses to shoot the film. A bathtub full of rusty water becomes a creepy signifier of existential dread, as does the entire, dreary industrial wasteland surrounding Spider's halfway house. Even mealtime becomes a horror show, with a family dinner cheerfully served up by young Spider's reconfigured tart-mom revealed as a bowl full of slimy, blatantly phallic eels. Everybody smiles and digs in.

Fiennes is remarkable throughout, his eyes filled with terror as if caught in the glare of reality's headlights. It's a fragile, anguished and thoroughly mesmerizing performance, especially considering that almost none of Spider's choked mumbling is remotely intelligible (think Ozzy Osbourne's slur-and-stutter crossed with Brad Pitt's Irish Gypsy in Snatch, only denser and far more disturbed). Not since Holly Hunter's mute performance in The Piano has an actor communicated so much with so little.

Cronenberg never gives us much to hope for and doesn't even seem to particularly care if we're able to make much sense of Spider or his world. Then again, this isn't one of those movies about mental illness that's really about hope and understanding (proceed directly to Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind if that's what you're craving). Spider is more like one of the makeshift webs that Fiennes' character is constantly fashioning of old bits of twine and stringing above his bed: a strange, sticky maze reflecting the labyrinthine mental processes of its maker. What Cronenberg has crafted here is cold and bleakly haunting; a precisely detailed evocation of mental disorder that's as macabre as it is meticulous. There are no life lessons to be learned here, just a man shuffling and scuttling along the curb, unable to put one foot in front of the other, as if he's in constant danger of falling off the end of the world.

A far more satisfying spin on modern gals grappling with Old World cultural values (and cliches) than My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Bend It Like Beckham is a great big juicy slab of populist entertainment. It's a popcorn movie of the best sort, with brains to go along with the heart, and a sense of purpose some will see as a feature-length promo for female empowerment.The movie gives us a little bit of everything, crossing smoothly from genre to genre and packing all of its elements tightly together in one groovy little package: romantic comedy, coming-of-age drama and sports movie. It even throws in a couple of mismatched buddies as its female heroes and brings down the house in its final act with a big fat ethnic wedding that'll work wonders on even the most jaded moviegoer.

At the center of the story is Jess (Jesminder to her parents), a nice Indian girl who just wants to follow her dream to play soccer, much to the dismay of dear old mum and dad. Jess' Punjabi parents have more or less assimilated into middle-class British suburban life, but they're still traditional enough to be driven crazy by their daughter's desire to kick a ball around and "show her bare legs to the world."

Much of what follows is fairly predictable but ultimately winning stuff. Jess and her best mate fall for the same guy (the team coach, no less), Jess gradually asserts her independence while, in the end, affirming family ties and ethnic identity and everything comes out in the wash during the big, final game of the season (guess who wins?). Director Gurinder Chadha (Bhaji on the Beach) toys with scores of cliches and conventions, but manages to transcend them all by keeping a firm grip on the bottom line, creating appealing and believable characters, and giving them an interesting and convincing world to live in.

Bend It Like Beckham shows us the nuances of not just Jess' world, but of all the dovetailing worlds around her — Asian and Anglo, black and white, male and female, straight and gay — painting them in strokes both delicate and bold, with both coming off as equally appetizing. The icing on the cake is the generous and utterly unaffected performances Chadha elicits from her actors, pulling us effortlessly into the characters' lives and into the movie itself. The cliches are what get our hearts racing in Bend It Like Beckham, for better and for worse, but the movie not only manages to pull them off, it makes us believers. If you don't leave the theatre grinning like a complete idiot, there's a strong possibility you're dead.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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