David Cronenberg has earned his reputation as one of the world's most flamboyant filmmakers. When he announced that his next picture would be called "Spider," fans thought they knew what to expect - a high-voltage sequel to his 1986 shocker "The Fly," perhaps, or a tale of demented entomologists à la the 1988 thriller "Dead Ringers."
Although it's hardly a gentle tale, "Spider" is arguably the subtlest, most carefully textured film of Cronenberg's career.
Its dreamlike, sometimes delirious, images are created with hardly a nod to the computerized special effects so fashionable today, and the main source of its emotional power couldn't be more traditional: excellent acting, especially by Ralph Fiennes as the protagonist and Miranda Richardson in multiple roles.
The story begins when a man known as Spider arrives at a group home for psychologically troubled people in London, a forward step for him after years in a mental institution. There he meets his new landlady (Lynne Redgrave) and fellow boarders.
It's immediately clear that he's unable to form stable relationships in the real world. His life transpires almost entirely in a realm of delusion and hallucination that he can neither control nor escape.
Plunging us into this realm, Cronenberg declines to draw clear boundary lines between illusion and reality, depicting Spider's everyday experiences as a complex web of memories, fantasies, longings, and dreads.
Gradually we realize Spider is making a desperate effort to relive and understand his past, scribbling endless notes in a small diary as he wanders through the neighborhood where he lived as a child.