- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

In an episode of the great sitcom "Cheers," Cliff Claven, the pedantic mailman with a childish attachment to his mom, defined a Freudian slip as "saying one thing when you're thinking of a mother."
Cliffie may have been on to something there.
It's not a great subject for polite cocktail party conversation, but according to the Freudian school of psychoanalysis, there's a sexual dynamic to family life.
That dynamic in particular, the relationship between son and mother is the spark that kindles "Spider," a new film by Canadian director David Cronenberg.
The man behind "Dead Ringers," "The Fly" and "Crash," Mr. Cronenberg has a long history of exploring the darker side of eroticism, that murky and dangerous area of human behavior that, as a proper Freudian might put it, civilization channels into rituals of romance and courtship.
Adapted from a 1990 novel by Patrick McGrath, who also wrote the screenplay, "Spider" is titled after its troubled protagonist, Dennis Cleg, affectionately nicknamed "Spider" by his mother because he was fascinated by spider webs.
At the start of "Spider," roughly in 1980s London, we meet the adult Dennis (Ralph Fiennes) as he returns to the grimy East End neighborhood captured beautifully by cinematographer Peter Suschitzky where he grew up.
He's disheveled, bedraggled (we're frequently shown the yellowish gunk on his fingers and their untrimmed nails) and uncommunicative, a schizophrenic taking up residence in a halfway house after 20 years in a mental institution.
So what happened?
I can't tell you; that would give away the ending of this wonderful, and wonderfully provocative, movie.
The one thing I can reveal is that it involves Spider's mom, played brilliantly by the British actress Miranda Richardson.
"Spider" wends its way back to a horrific act perpetrated by the young Dennis (the promising Bradley Hall) as the adult Spider wanders around his old childhood haunts.
We see him coldly observing his past as an unnoticed bystander. Spider watches his younger self, an awkward, friendless, intensely curious youngster accusing his father (the great Gabriel Byrne) of murdering his mother and replacing her with a slattern named Yvonne.
Mr. Fiennes, fresh off two big box-office hits, "Red Dragon" and "Maid in Manhattan," isn't necessarily as stunning as he seems.
His character a muttering madman who barely speaks a coherent sentence throughout the entire movie, scribbles illegible scrawl in a notebook he paranoically keeps hidden, and wears four shirts at a time was to a large extent already written for him. In other words, he took Spider's preconceived quirks and ran with them.
So he may be the film's anchor, but Miss Richardson had the harder job and is the true star of "Spider," the one who makes it crackle and fizz with energy. Miss Richardson plays, with equal but disparate skill the prim Mrs. Cleg and the lecherous Yvonne (with a trash-talking cockney accent, mousey hair and a mouthful of bad English teeth). Mysteriously, she morphs into the halfway house matron, a battle-ax named Mrs. Wilkinson, who had been played by Lynn Redgrave.
It's impossible to tell if Spider's memories are real or imagined, but it seems certain his dementia is fueled by a reaction to his mother's sexuality. He's threatened by it, recoils from it and blocks it from his ken until it comes crashing into view with exaggerated effect.
Probably neither image of Mrs. Cleg the maiden nor the tart was completely accurate. Maybe she was some combination of the two. Maybe the virginal image was the young Spider's idealization of a mother.
Who knows?
Either way, it's no bad thing to come out of a movie with unanswered questions on your mind.
"Spider" is the kind of movie that you knew this was coming will stick with you.

***
TITLE: "Spider"
RATING: R (Profanity, simulated intercourse, brief violence, perpetually disturbing atmosphere)
CREDITS: Directed by David Cronenberg. Produced by Mr. Cronenberg, Catherine Bailey and Samuel Hadida. Written by Patrick McGrath, based on his 1990 novel.
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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