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Spider

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No liberating comic-book transformations await Dennis "Spider" Cleg. As played by Ralph Fiennes in David Cronenberg's Spider, he's a shuffling, mumbling wreck, just released from an asylum into a dingy halfway house in the same East End neighborhood where he grew up.


Spider, whose movie is a slow, spare, somber study of memory, madness and solitude, shares with The Hulk's Bruce Banner a bullying father who's apparently complicit in a repressed childhood trauma. The only neater coincidence would have been if both films were released in time for Fathers' Day.


But Cronenberg and writer Patrick McGrath (adapting his own novel) also attend to other unsettling concerns. To evoke the past, Cronenberg depicts Spider as a physical witness to his young self's interactions with a loving mom (Miranda Richardson) and surly dad (Gabriel Byrne) -- he's a ghost haunting his own past. And when Mrs. Cleg discovers her husband's crude assignation with a barroom slattern, what happens next seems too inhuman, too surreal even, to be true.   


In fact, it probably is. Cronenberg's rendering of Spider's warped recollections might strike you as a directorial jest about the reliability of narrators, or perhaps a test of audience acuity (note, for instance, which memory scenes have neither big nor little Spider present). And if that were all Spider is, it wouldn't be worth much, despite the beautiful cinematography and Fiennes' fine performance.


But in his most stripped-down film to date, Cronenberg -- though as resistant to sentimentality as ever -- makes you see why Spider can't tell himself the truth. It's a disturbingly empathetic portrait of a man helplessly lost in his own mind, looking for a way out and shivering in the chilly, deceptive wind of memory. AAA

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