Time and again I find myself coming back to review a work by David Cronenberg, who by this stage I believe is one of the most purposefully enigmatic and multi-faceted directors still working today. What separates Cronenberg from many a director is his unique capacity to evoke primal psychology through imagery. Until recently I believed Dead Ringers to be his closest testament to psychological cinema, only to recently discover that his grounded exploration of psychosis had yet to come full-circle, as evidenced by his 2002 film Spider.
The film is set in London, England, where Dennis “Spider” Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) steps off a train, having only being released from a mental institution. Although his reason for being there has not been disclosed, Dennis is clearly mentally disturbed given his frequent incoherent ramblings that rarely rise above a whisper. Dennis is of a nervy, introverted disposition, taking solace only in his notepad, where he writes in a cryptic language known only to himself. It is here that Spider relives memories of his childhood, hoping to make sense of a troubled past that led him to the halfway house where he now resides.
Immediately apparent is Cronenberg’s use of subtle, generally unspoken indicators that can trigger Spider’s introverted paranoia, even past the point of his own conscious understanding. This immediately makes for one of the film’s most engaging elements, in that, much like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, the protagonist is trying to piece together his past as much as the audience, though not every is as it seems.
Where Cronenberg deviates from Nolan in this regard, however, is that his protagonist is an unreliable narrator; we are at times left unsure of what may or may not have happened, particularly in situations where Spider could not have been present. Is this all fallacy, filling in the blanks, or are the flashback scenes for which he is present to be questioned also?
However you interpret the film, Cronenberg’s direction nonetheless works in flawless tandem with the immensely talented Ralph Fiennes to steep us neck-deep in Dennis “Spider” Cleg’s tortured existence. What is most astonishing is that if one were to remove all the flashback scenes, Spider would appear as one-dimensionally disturbed to us as he is to almost any other character he encounters throughout. Yet with the aid of deliberately murky cinematography and set design to fit it, Cronenberg effectively delivers what, from my experience, few have managed achieve: an unwaveringly dark, personal representation of mental health.
Allow me to conclude by noting why such a representation is of particular importance. With the recent release of M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass, there appears to be a revived debate on the representation of mental illness in cinema, wherein it tends to be stigmatised rather than subjectively personified.
Shyamalan is a fine director (when on form), and in no way do I question his morality , or that of any other director who uses mental health as a tool for the purposes of horror and/or action, but I do think there should greater awareness from the filmmakers when depicting mentally ill characters, as what they project can influence public perceptions to varying degrees. Scoff as some of you may, but someone once asked me if those with schizophrenia can have different medical disorders, like diabetes, depending on the personality that is present, which was in reference to Kevin Crumb, a character in Glass and its predecessor Split.
A film like Spider, on the other hand, presents us with a sympathetic protagonist heartbreakingly trying to make as much sense of his life as we are, and in that process, we are gifted not only with an insightful psychological drama, but also a humanising story that highlights issues of mental health with compassion.