Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Ralph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, Lynn Redgrave
Director:  David Cronenberg
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  98 Minutes
Release Date:  July 29, 2003


Film ***1/2

Spider and David Cronenberg are a perfect match of project to filmmaker…after all, the Canadian director has made a career out of getting inside our minds and toying with the knobs.  In this film, he takes us through a mystery as it unfolds not in real time, but in the mind of a schizophrenic who wanders through his own memories and visuals, observing them along with us.

As the picture opens, Dennis (Fiennes, in a tour-de-force performance), once nicknamed “Spider” by his mother, is coming out of an asylum to his new home at a halfway house run by a cold stalwart (Redgrave).  No mention of his mental illness occurs in the film; we recognize the signs of schizophrenia, but as Cronenberg points out in the commentary, they didn’t attempt to follow any kind of symptomatic checklist with this character.

Nervous, hunched and withdraw, barely speaking apart from mumbling to himself, and constantly scratching out lines and lines of notes that make no sense, we experience the workings of Spider’s mind first hand.  He keeps harkening back to his childhood, where his mother (Richardson) and father (Byrne) seem to be having some problems.  Or are they?  In Spider’s fractured state, there’s no way of being certain what’s real and what’s delusion.

For example, we see scenes that we know can’t be Spider’s memory, because he wasn’t there to see them.  His father taking up with a ‘tart’ from the local pub, for example.  The confrontation that leads to murder.  Or the fact that some of the characters in Spider’s mind and life keep looking oddly familiar to him and us.

This is a terrific film that keeps you deliberately off balance, but never gets convoluted or confusing.  We know we can’t always trust what Spider shows us, so for the course of the movie, we just kind of have to take it all in and begin the sorting out process later.  One thing’s for certain…a second viewing is not only probably required, but eagerly anticipated.

Cronenberg forgoes his usual style of visual disturbance for a more deeply rooted psychological one.  It’s not the things he shows us that make us wary, it’s the nagging uncertainty that plays out in our own minds that both draws us in and keeps us on edge.  This is one of his finest works to date.

But Ralph Fiennes deserves a huge mention, also for turning in one of his finest works to date.  The actor who made a worldwide impression with Schindler’s List continues to prove he’s one of the best in the business, and just because he occasionally takes a lightweight role like in Maid in Manhattan doesn’t mean he won’t delve into a complex, demanding part like in Spider and deliver the goods.  An Oscar nomination would definitely be in order, in my opinion.

Credit also goes to Miranda Richardson, who’s part in the film grows more complicated as the story progresses.  She’s always been at the top of her game, and like Cronenberg and Fiennes, she turns in some of the best work of her career with this picture.

Spider is simply a well crafted, well acted and imaginative thriller that dares you to put the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together, without guaranteeing that every piece you see actually belongs to the puzzle.

Video ****

Outstanding…for a film filled with visual clues, you’d want only the best in an anamorphic transfer, and Columbia Tri Star delivers with one of the year’s best.  Colors, images, and lines are crisp, clean and clear from start to finish, with integrity maintained through all levels of lighting…that’s extremely important given the number of dimly lit atmospheric shots in the film.  The level of detail from close up to deep focus is remarkable as well…reference quality.

Audio ***1/2

The most impressive part of the 5.1 audio is how well it conveys the illusion of space.  Certain voices and sound cues seem to be coming from further away than the confines of your viewing room, which definitely adds to the creepiness.  Dynamic range is good, and dialogue is mostly clear…I say mostly, because Spider mostly mumbles throughout the picture, and we really aren’t meant to catch much more than a word or two here and there.  Very nicely done.

Features ***

The commentary by David Cronenberg is a very welcome addition to your second viewing of the film, as he not only talks about the making of it and his cast and crew, but points out a couple of the elusive bread crumbs you may have missed your first time out.  The disc includes three short featurettes that may just as well been combined into one, but they document how the film came to be, the making of the movie, and a look at the terrific cast.  Rounding out are trailers for this picture and others and filmographies.


Spider is a psychological thriller for the new millennium.  With a knockout performance by Ralph Fiennes in the title role and masterful, sure-handed direction from the inimitable David Cronenberg, this is one you’ll want to experience more than once.