SPIDER

Directed by David Cronenberg

Written by Patrick McGrath, based on his novel

With Ralph Fiennes, Gabriel Byrne, Miranda Richardson, Bradley Hall and Lynn Redgrave

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics

**1/2
For a David Cronenberg film about a schizophrenic, SPIDER is oddly staid.  eXistenZ was a relatively minor film, incapable of dealing with the larger issues it raised about virtual reality and real-world violence, but it was still a fun romp through old territory. (A friend aptly called it Cronenberg's NORTH BY NORTHWEST.) Compared to SPIDER, it now feels fresher than it did at the time. A return to the series of literary adaptations  that began with DEAD RINGERS, this one suggests that McGrath should have taken a few psychology courses beyond Freud 101.

SPIDER begins quite promisingly. Released from a mental institution, Dennis "Spider" Cleg (Fiennes) enters a halfway house. A schizophrenic, he returns to the East End London streets where he lived as a boy.  He attempts to learn to live with his demons, if not conquer them. Memory defeats his attempts.  It propels him back into some version of the past.  Ghosts haunt his surroundings. Eventually, he starts living entirely in the past, stuck in extensive flashbacks to his childhood. These flashbacks may or may not be accurate, as Spider watches his younger self  (Hall), father (Byrne) and mother (Richardson) from an unobtrusive corner or closet.  The young Spider grows increasingly traumatized by a mysterious event.

Even at his best-dressed, Ralph Fiennes has never seemed 100% neat. His hair rarely looks completely washed, and even at his most handsome, a subtly grungy patina clings to him. (Subtly, not  a Vincent Gallo heroin chic manner.) Despite his movie star looks and status, he's a good choice as Spider. Swallowing his words (some of which are incomprehensible), scribbling in a private language and crouching, his performance remains just this side of a Method stunt but ultimately feels convincing. The 10-year-old Hall is a real find, as much for his looks as his performance. He resembles a younger Fiennes, but more than that, he looks like he could have crawled off the cover of a Whitley Strieber book about aliens.

Unfortunately, long stretches of SPIDER feel like a  weirder, more deliberately version of a Neil Jordan or Stephen Frears film about growing up in '50s London. (Jordan's THE BUTCHER BOY had a somewhat similar feel.) Granted, Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky give  it a disinctive glow. The film's primitive sense of psychology, revolving around an Oedipal complex directed against women, is  difficult to take seriously. Cronenberg and McGrath fill the film with simplistic rhyming imagery. Spider earns his nickname because he constructs a rope web in his room. The title (and name) becomes a symbol of sexual fatalism, as Spider learns that a female spider dies after she spins her web and exhausts her silk supply after making a pouch for his eggs. Later on, Spider constructs a similar web in his room at the halfway house. Back at the mental institution, a pane of glass shatters into weblike fragments.  Hammers, which are linked to violence against women, also play a vital role in this scenario.

Cronenberg deserves some credit for venturing into a fresh  set of  symbols, but this film's ideas aren't new. In his films, perception has usually been faulty, mediated by drugs or...well, the media. SPIDER replays the same trope, putting schizophrenia in its place. At first, it seems like it might have something new to say about this condition. By the midway point, it seems like a genteel version of the same old thing. The oneiric quality is fairly subtle: the Clegs' neighborhood always seems deserted, but it's a short walk away from the pub where Spider's dad and a trio of "tarts" hang out. Still, these qualities are defeated by a screenplay that keeps presenting twists and confused judgment - on our part or Spider's - as great revelations rather than screenwriter's tricks. VIDEODROME did a far better job of evoking a world resembling our own, but seen from a much different perspective (and without relying on simple explanations for its protagonist's malaise). Even CRASH created a universe that looked like ours but operated under a different erotic and emotional tangent. SPIDER simply shows a man gibbering, an hour of amibiguous flashbacks to his childhood and suggests  that it's a major epiphany.