SPIDER Is he strong? Listen, bub. He’s got radioactive blood.

dir. Cronenberg

Opens Fri April 4

Cinema 21

There is a lot of talk about David Cronenberg's "world," as if you can hop on a spaceship and visit a place far more interesting than Spielbergia, yet not as wacky as Burtonville. But those expecting the creaky worlds of The Fly or eXistenZ in Cronenberg's new movie, Spider, may be sorely disappointed, even though Spider is a far better movie than most of the films in Cronenberg's oeuvre.

Spider (the nickname of the main character) begins with Ralph Fiennes, who says less than ten intelligible words in the entire film, entering a sort of halfway house for people released from the asylum. Even though the head of the house, Mrs. Wilkinson (Lynn Redgrave), tries to assimilate our dear mumbling (and freakishly hot even while unbathed and twitching) Ralphie, he slowly starts living in his past, re-imagining the events that led him to the asylum. Fiennes is inserted in these scenes so that we watch him watching himself as a child.

Spider's past plays out like a perverse rewriting of Angela's Ashes. A drunken Irish father (Gabriel Byrne) argues with the stoic martyred mother (Miranda Richardson), and then runs down to the pub while the wee little lad watches vacantly from the stairwell. Only we have to remember that a lunatic is telling the story, and Miranda Richardson's mother slowly insinuates herself into Spider's world, becoming other women in Spider's life and leaving any sense of reality to be questioned.

This, I suppose, is the most Cronenbergian aspect of the film--there is no place for conventional narrative. Fiennes is the main character, but has no discernable personality. He mumbles and puts his hands down his pants, and though his performance is less amazing than solid, you do forget he was making out with J.LO in his last movie. Fiennes seems to be trying to escape his attractiveness as well--in Spider, as with last year's Red Dragon, Fiennes plays characters that defy any sense of conventional beauty.

The real star of the movie is Richardson, who plays several characters. Her presence haunts the screen in such a way that you begin to understand the psychological issues of Spider as a child--in fact, the psychological aspect of the film is so well portrayed that you forget the story ever existed in another medium, in this case a novel by Patrick McGrath (who also wrote the screenplay, partially explaining why the story translates to screen so well).

Even Howard Shore's music is beautifully out of place, like calliope music at a funeral. A plaintive chorale plays over the credits while strange unearthly designs of streaked mildew and torn wallpaper fade on and off the screen. No one becomes a bug, heads don't explode, and very little blood is spilled, but Spider might fit into that Cronenberg world after all.