In Spider, Ralph Fiennes plays schizophrenic Dennis “Spider” Clegg. The film opens with his just having been released from an asylum to a halfway house.
Clegg moves in a slow, uncertain, apologetic way. He constantly mutters to himself, and pretty much speaks in that same low voice to others, that is on the infrequent occasions he’s forced to interact with others, which clearly he’d prefer not to, given his startled, uncomfortable look whenever he is spoken to. He spends much of his time frantically scribbling notes in the little notebook he carries with him, though when we get a glimpse of his writing it doesn’t appear to be anything coherent—probably some kind of graphomania.
The other inhabitants of the halfway house seem each in their own way to probably be as nuts as he is. One older fellow delights in telling tall tales about the unlikely deaths of people he has known (e.g., from a scorpion sting, or from putting one’s head in an oven to commit suicide, changing one’s mind, and then dying anyway from being stuck in there).
The bulk of the movie has to do with Clegg’s memories of his childhood. Of course, because of his mental condition, you never know which are accurate memories and which are delusions. But I’ll confess I cheated and read about the movie in advance, since I feared it would be incomprehensible, and got some guidance on this point.
One theory—which seems reasonably well supported by the evidence and to mostly result in a coherent, plausible story—is that the scenes from Clegg’s childhood where the young Clegg himself (about 10-12 years old I’d say) is actually present are probably things that really happened or at least reasonably close to things that really happened, whereas the scenes from Clegg’s childhood where he isn’t present are more likely to be his insane speculations and thus bear little resemblance to anything that really happened.
By being shown so much of what Clegg remembers, along with what he thinks he remembers, we get some insight into not so much what drove him crazy as a boy (no doubt he was seriously mentally ill all along), but of what kind of things imprinted themselves most strongly on his mind and set off his fantasies.
A lot of it has to do with his mother. Or more broadly a lot of it is Oedipal. He is a mama’s boy who is fascinated and quietly outraged by any indication that his mother is affectionate or sexual with anyone other than him, including his father.
His father spends a lot of time at the pub, which is an environment where young Clegg is decidedly uncomfortable after a loud, drunk woman exposes a breast to him as a lark, an experience he finds frightening to the point of traumatizing more than any kind of turn on.
More than once he sees his parents kissing or being playfully affectionate with each other, and he’s not at all happy about it.
He recalls conversations with his mother about spiders, a subject that apparently fascinated him as a child and explains his nickname (and the fact that he spends much of his time fiddling with string making those “cat’s cradle” type string figures). He especially likes when his mother tells him of some spider mothers that go off to die after laying their egg sac, because they have no further purpose in life after giving birth.
He’s a very quiet child, mostly just sitting around observing things in wide-eyed fashion. His parents know that he’s “off,” though I’m sure they don’t appreciate the severity of his mental illness. His father is concerned that he is always alone and has no “mates.”
In time, in young Clegg’s mind his mother and the loud cackling blonde at the pub who flashed him merge. Also, as the adult Clegg gets more and more caught up in these memories his current landlady at the halfway house merges with his mother in his mind. (His mother and the versions of these other women he confuses with his mother are all played by the same actress, with different wigs and clothes and such.)
The way he pieces it together in his mind, his father has an affair with the bar tart, his mother finds out, his father kills his mother, and the bar tart moves into their house to live as his mother. He—the young Clegg himself, that is—then avenges his mother by killing this replacement, which is probably closer to what really happened—i.e., Clegg killed his mother under the delusion she was someone else, and that’s why he was institutionalized as insane until well into his adulthood.
But again, really you can only take educated guesses about what’s real and what’s not in all this material that comes from his own diseased mind.
Spider is an interesting tale worth paying close attention to, and Fiennes is certainly attention-grabbing in the lead role. And though it can be confusing, and there is some ambiguity about what to believe and what not to believe, on the whole it’s really not as incomprehensible as other movies I’ve seen that attempt to take you into the mind of a schizophrenic. I’m thinking, for instance, of Julien Donkey-Boy, Leolo, or maybe Buddy Boy. This is more like maybe Bug or Keane in terms of how easy or difficult it is to follow.