From his limitless taste for the mentally dysfunctional or physically disfigured David Cronenberg emits this obstinately slow excursion into the life of Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), nicknamed by his mother "Spider" for his love of her story about one. This is a painful study of derangement, in which we are treated as much to Cleg's early, formative years as to his adult life in the present.
The story starts in the present when Cleg is the last to alight from a train that has brought him from a mental institution to a London halfway house for similarly mind-affected residents. He is dressed in a multilayer of shirts, a coat, moves hesitantly, and mumbles unintelligibly. This is Ralph Fiennes at his mentally challenged best, as much a specimen of his acting predilections as Cronenberg's patented darkness (see Fiennes' current Red Dragon). We quickly see that it's paranoid dementia that envelops the poor shadow of a whole man.
He trusts no one, especially Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave), the woman who runs the house. Fellow resident Terrence (John Neville) seems to be assigned a halfway trust as a reward for his continued concern, guidance and protection of our fumbling slow-gaited hero. As Cleg settles in to the lodging, his mind soon wanders to his childhood memories which, as represented by flashbacks with him as an invisible observer, appear vivid, indeed. He is clearly reliving every moment that led to his escape from reality.
At first, not much more innocuous than his absorption in his mother (Miranda Richardson) and uneasy coldness toward his insensitive father Bill (Gabriel Byrne), who has a tendency to demean and, even, strike his wife, the flashback scenario develops into actions that show us the events that have triggered his flight into the darkest recesses of his mind and turned him into the non-functioning basket case he has become.
As he confuses present with past, and sees past people as those in his life now, we get Miranda Richardson playing three parts: his mother, Yvonne, the prostitute his father replaces her with and, finally, Mrs. Wilkinson, when she's the target of a murderously intended climax.
While one might well applaud Fiennes' deeply internalized performance, and Cronenberg's gloomy mood of mental isolation, (amply promoted by Peter Suschitzky's artfully textured cinematography) the unrelieved grimness of the character and his tale seems designed to wholly disregard any commercial or popular support for the endeavor.
Of course, there are Cronenberg fans who will not want to miss it, and for good reason. He is an able, if uncompromising master of the filmmaking art. For the serious student of movies, his films should not be missed. This one, with less shock value than his usual, is more difficult to enjoy than others that have sprung from his dark mind. In fact, the term "enjoy" seems wholly inappropriate in this context.
Cronenberg doesn't bring us enjoyment; he brings intensity of focus on mental landscapes. Maybe that's why there were 14 producers for it, besides himself. This kind of film can't depend on the usual haunts and studio circles for funding.