There are quite a few films that feature schizophrenic protagonists. They could be provocative, such as Black Swan; suspenseful, like A Beautiful Mind; and humorous – Me, Myself, and Irene. Spider has little similarities, if none at all, with these other films. All films face the challenge of keeping their audiences entertained, but highly subjective films like Spider have to go the extra mile. Since we can only ‘see’ through the eyes of Dennis Cleg, we are heavily dependent on his perspective to deliver the plot and its development in an interesting way. Too much information will bore us, and too little of it will leave us frustrated. David Cronenberg is a truly talented filmmaker for ending the film with the right amount of vagueness.
Spider starts off slowly, picks up a bit of speed, and then maintains its pace for the remaining duration. Honestly, it felt much longer than its 98 minutes. However, this ‘slowness’ works to the film’s advantage on several levels. One of the factors that contributes to its slowness is the fact that the protagonist himself is having difficulty in piecing together fragments of his memory. As a viewer, I could feel the excruciating and painstaking frustration of Dennis in stringing together bits and pieces of flashbacks into a coherent whole. At one point, I wanted to yell, “Figure it out already damn it!” But then I stopped myself because I couldn’t help sympathizing with the guy. (On a side note, I really must commend Ralph Fiennes for a great performance – his retardation was absolutely convincing).
Second of all, the film’s apparent slowness can mislead the audience into making hasty conclusions. At least, that’s what happened with me. When the landlady told Dennis that she was ‘Mrs. Wilkinson’ and when the woman at the bar with whom Dennis’ father was adulterating introduced herself as Yvonne Wilkinson, I sat up in my chair and thought I had figured out the plot twist. Of course, an hour of seemingly pointless reflection on Dennis’ part would lead any impatient person to conclude that. Since the plot was taking it sweet time to unfold, I took it upon myself to jump the gun and figure it out. Score one for the film though because I got it completely wrong.
Lastly, the deliberate slowness of the film sort of lulled me into a state of submission. I knew from the get-go that Spider was a subjective film. Yet for some reason, in my trance, I had forgotten that subjectivity is often a source of inaccuracy. At first, I wondered how Dennis Cleg could have recalled all those scenes at the bar and the tool shed when he was supposedly at home. But I eventually relented and let the film take its course. I ended up resenting Dennis’ father the way he had resented him. Every time Yvonne (holy crap, she was played by Miranda Richardson too?) would appear on screen, I’d internally yell, “You whore!”
The success of the film’s subjectivity is that it, however briefly, made me side with Dennis Cleg. Even when there were hints of his insanity (the fact that he was in a halfway house for the mentally ill, the flashback of the institution, and the second encounter with his father in the tool shed), I wrote them off completely. I figured that he was unjustly condemned to an asylum by his dickhead father. When the final scene unfolded, and the ‘Yvonne Wilkinson’ that Dennis killed as a boy turned out to be his own mother, my jaw dropped. No, that isn’t a figure of speech. My jaw LITERALLY DROPPED. That psycho Dennis Cleg betrayed me! That sneaky bastard with the Oedipus complex!
There are only a handful of films that have left me feeling satisfyingly stupid, and Spider is definitely one for the books.