Columbia/Tri-Star // R // $24.95 // July 29, 2003
Review by James W. Powell | posted July 13, 2003
Highly Recommended
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The first time we see Spider (Ralph Fiennes), we know immediately there's something not quite right with him. When he steps off the train, he's not a part of the society around him. He's in his own, unstable world. Spider, directed by David Cronenberg, really gets inside that world and allows viewers to become a schizophrenic.

Spider has been released by the mental ward and heads to a halfway house in the same area of London where he grew up. This opens doors to his past, and he tries to uncover the truth about his mother (Miranda Richardson) and his father (Gabrielle Byrne). But with each memory comes more questions. We see the past through the eyes of both the adult Spider and the boy Spider (Bradley Hall), but what is real and what is imagined?

Young Spider shows signs of Freud's Oedipus Complex. He's at the age where he's learning about sex, and he is confused about his feelings concerning his parent's sexuality. He doesn't like it when his mother shows him something sexy she bought to wear for a night out with his father. He's unsure what to make of his parent kissing. And he most assuredly doesn't like to see his father sleeping around with the local tramp (Miranda Richardson).

But this is where all the questions (and tension) lie. Did the young Spider actually witness these events, or has the adult Spider created this fantasy to explain something terrible that happened when he was younger? Throughout the entire picture, I found myself questioning everything. Is this reality or fantasy? All that's known is that something horrible did indeed happen when he was a boy. But what? How? As Spider goes deeper into his memories, these questions are apparently answered, but more questions take their place. Just what is he hiding?

Fiennes is superb here. From the second he stepped off the train in the opening scene, he was Spider. All the subtleties of his performance—the unintelligible mumbling, his stooped stature, the comfort found only while rolling and smoking a cigarette—add up to a very complex and disturbing character.

Spider is not a clinical view of schizophrenia, which is why this film is so powerful. It doesn't offer a checklist of issues that might effect an unstable mind. Instead, it gets you inside that mind. I could actually empathize with the character. Instead of watching events unfold on screen, my confusion made it so that I was Spider.

Most of the questions are answered at the end of the film (or are they?), so the confusion and tension are gone the second time through. However, because of the revelations, Spider becomes a completely different experience in subsequent viewings. Not as powerful, perhaps, but enjoyable for entirely different reasons.

Sony Pictures Classics presents Spider in it's original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. I must say, this anamorphic transfer really impressed me, particularly the colors. Spider is a darker film, with lots of grays, blacks, and deep olives, and these colors really add to the weight of the film. When brighter colors are presented, they are very vibrant. Plus, skin tones look perfect.

The detail in this transfer is very solid, but there seems to be a general softness to much of the picture. I believe this is a cinematic effect chosen by Cronenberg, not a shortcoming of the DVD's presentation. Perhaps the only real shortcoming of the image is a lack of detail in the deeper, darker shadows. This appears only on close scrutiny of the picture and probably won't be noticeable to anyone other than reviewers and nitpickers.

Spider is presented here in a nice 5.1 Dolby Digital track that won't give your speakers a work out, but is great nonetheless. Flow from the left to right soundfields is very accurate and actually noticeable on more than one occasion. Voices come through crisp and clear, and Spider's mumbling is perfectly unintelligible. The rear channels generally only offer ambiance with the occasional sound effects.

Perhaps the best feature of this audio track is Howard Shore's score. The soundtrack, which sounds flawless on this DVD, truly adds to the sadness and desperation of Spider's discoveries. As if Fiennes' performance wasn't enough, the score helps us empathize with Spider's emotions.

The most important bonus feature is Cronenberg's screen-specific commentary. The director offers great insight into Spider's mind and actually offers up some thought provoking questions. Naturally, he also gives some interesting behind-the-scenes information. Cronenberg's tone is that of both a friend and an instructor; he's both informal and intellectual.

This DVD also features three featurettes (presented in full frame) that would've been better if they were one continuous documentary. All are very interesting, but don't offer anything that would make me interested in viewing them a second time.

"In the Beginning: How Spider Came to Be" features interviews with Cronenberg, writer Patrick McGrath, and actress Miranda Richardson. This 8-minute featurette focuses primarily on the director's first introduction to the script and the financial difficulties of the filming.

The 9-minute "Weaving the Web: The Making of Spider" features more interviews but focuses on what appears on screen and how Spider's persona came to life during filming.

Running slightly longer at 12 minutes, "Caught in Spider's Web: The Cast" features, you guessed it, more interviews with and about the cast and how they came to be associated with the film.

Readers should note that although the commentary and the featurettes are great in their own right, they do overlap with redundant information.

Also, the disc features updated filmographies for the cast, director, and writer, and trailers for Spider (widescreen/2.0), Adaptation (widescreen, 5.1), Punch-Drunk Love (widescreen/5.2), and Devil's Backbone (full frame/2.0).

Spider is a dark film that really gets into the mind of the main character as he tries to unravel the mysteries of his past. There are layers upon layers of questions that are answered slowly, leading to a very intense film, one that becomes a completely different experience the second time through. With a good transfer and decent extras that aren't made up of marketing fluff, I highly recommend this DVD.

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