David Cronenberg has always been fascinated with mind-and-body issues, though with a decided emphasis on diseased or mutated or lacerated flesh, and he achieved lasting fame and notoriety for such bloody sci-fi excursions as Scanners, The Fly, Dead Ringers and Crash. His last film, the little-seen but quite interesting eXistenZ, was an exploration of virtual reality gaming that emphasized the necessary interfaces of flesh (and introduced a whole new line of revolting props to the Cronenberg catalog). It was sort of like The Matrix but with more blood, guts and Baudrillard and less rubber, leather and Hong Kong hooey.

Although Cronenberg’s facility for grossness has helped him find an audience on the schlock circuit, his films are too thoughtful and disturbing to provide the easy thrills of typical horror flicks. For a long time, Cronenberg was virtually alone in examining the connections between the achievements of medicine and communications and the gratification of human desires. But in recent years, his interests have gone mainstream: Movies like X2 and The Matrix Reloaded will earn hundreds of millions of dollars this month alone with their pop explorations of mind, body and consciousness. It seems entirely appropriate then, that with his new film Spider, Cronenberg retreats from F/X and gore and settles into a gray-on-gray British period film about the most mysterious of all mind-and-body maladies: schizophrenia.

The title notwithstanding, there are no arachno-grossouts in this film. “Spider” is merely the childhood nickname bestowed upon the film’s protagonist, Dennis Cleg, by his mother. We first meet Spider Cleg as he gets off a train at London’s Waterloo Station, a timid, confused man in a grimy, threadbare suit. In the lead role, Ralph Fiennes gives a completely interior, self-abnegating performance: Saying very little, he walks with a stooped gait with his bent knees and turned-out toes. It’s as if Cleg had spent his entire life in a cage. As it turns out, he pretty much has.

Cleg’s destination turns out to be a halfway house in an unfashionable London district, and we learn that Cleg has been released from a mental hospital after decades of confinement. The halfway house is located in Cleg’s old East End neighborhood, and he begins reliving a traumatic period from his childhood, one that culminated in the violent death of one of his parents. It turns out that Spider is the only offspring of a plumber father (Gabriel Byrne) and an adored, homemaking mother (Miranda Richardson) and on the surface, his childhood seems happy. But something is clearly amiss: Spider seems to have an unresolved sexual rivalry with his father as they compete for Mrs. Cleg’s affections.

Spider takes the form of a memory play, but one in which the recollections are extraordinarily unreliable. Based on a 1990 novel by Patrick McGrath, who also wrote the screenplay adaptation, the film takes place in the classically British kitchen-sink milieu, dividing the action between the private spaces of modest, working class flats and the noisy spaces of public houses. Spider is safe with Mum and Dad at home, but his security dissipates when he becomes aware of his mother’s sexuality, and his own. He’s confused and resentful when he spies on his parents having a randy moment together, and he’s humiliated one night in the frightening arena of the pub when a blond harlot flashes a breast at him. Young Spider subsequently becomes convinced that his father is having an affair with this woman and his world begins to come apart.

At times, the staging of Spider is so bare-bones that it raises questions about whether the novel is particularly illuminated by a film adaptation. The scenes of Cleg’s childhood (in which young Spider is played by newcomer Bradley Hall) are rendered with Fiennes standing unseen in the corner, watching the unfolding of past events. It’s a simple but fairly distracting conceit–this tactic works better on stage than on screen. And Fiennes has so few lines and is so thoroughly burrowed into his character’s precarious mental state that it’s easy for us to forget he’s there. It’s a committed and true performance, but one that is so full of integrity that it’s hard for us to penetrate his psyche and somehow identify with him. This is where the tools of the novel are superior to those of film. However, as Spider works toward its revelations the complex and brilliant performance of Miranda Richardson offers a compelling argument for adapting this novel into a film. (Richardson’s many top-notch credits include The Crying Game, Enchanted April and recently, The Hours, in which she played Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister.)

Despite the powerful turn by Richardson and fine work elsewhere in the cast, Spider comes off as a puzzle picture, and one whose treatment of madness owes more to a certain Viennese fabulist than to modern psychiatry. It doesn’t help that the protagonist is a mere shell of a human being–there’s hardly anything for us to hold onto. For a more clinical take on the consciousness of a schizophrenic, go to the video store and rent Clean Shaven, Lodge Kerrigan’s 1994 indie film. This picture is a difficult, sometimes unbearable watch with grating sounds, repellent images and a title that fairly screams “Beware!” but it does a better job of dramatizing the physical manifestations of serious mental illness.

In other words, Clean Shaven is more Cronenbergian treatment of schizophrenia than Cronenberg’s own Spider, which in turn is the most realistically and literarily textured film the once and probably future gore-meister has ever attempted. EndBlock