I am firmly of the opinion that if M. Night Shyamalan ever calms down a little and gets over the whole ending thing, he'll be one of the standout moviemakers of his generation. David Cronenberg, meanwhile, is already one of the standout moviemakers of his generation, so it's a shame that Spider, far from the deep, unsettling unwinding of a tangled knot (you'll be glad to know I refrained from using the word "web", not for the last time, at this point, thus consciously eschewing at least the most obvious of clumsy metaphors - a favour Spider is loathe to do its audience) of madness it sets out to be, is, basically, a Surprise Ending movie inverted and gone terribly wrong.
Here's how the Surprise Ending movie goes. The audience is drawn deeper and deeper into a twisted plot, fed details which may or may not be important later, and then, midway through act 3, BAM!, something happens that makes the entire movie seem relevant in a whole new light. You have to go back and view it again, just to pick up on all the clues that were there all along, and have now become a join-the-dots puzzle that, when completed, give the movie a satisfying sense of, not just wholeness, but multi-facetedness. A good Suprise Ending movie is a joy because it manages to operate simultaneously on an immediate level, entertaining from minute-to-minute, and a subterranian, hidden-clues-for-the-cognoscenti level. It's a somewhat worn template by now, but still a rewarding one when done well.
Cronenberg is always lauded as the master of bodily horror, an auteur who brings his peculiar fascination with the literally visceral through his career and dots different angles on it into every film he makes. But what I've always liked about him is his singularly ambivalent view on reality (quotation marks deleted mid-edit) - Videodrome and eXistenZ's delvings into emergent technology and its implications on the mapping out of the popular consciousness, Dead Ringers and Crash's refusal to portray as sexy anything that's not pow'ful gross. Who better to add to the Surprise genre, effortlessly negotiating the prescribed balance while crafting a rewarding and unique movie around it?
But, rather impressively, Spider, while quite obviously placing itself within the milieu, manages none of the things that usually make a Surprise movie worth watching, and doesn't bring anything else either. The Surprise at the end of the movie, in fact, manages to quite actively nullify what were previously interesting, mulled-over details - deeper we go, deeper into the mind of Spider, wondering why he did (sorry, dun) the things he did (dun), wondering what made him this way, only to emerge at the eventual conclusion of: cause he's mental.
Unfolding like the Rorschach diagrams that the film's most unsettling moment, its title sequence, takes as its cue, Spider seems more and more to be presenting us with a moving, three-dimensional, multicolor inkblot test, suggesting multiple interpretations of the events Spider narrates then forcing us to consider our interpretations, horrified not at the goings-on onscreen so much as what we make of them. That may sound like a load of old horseradish, but it's a pretty palpable thing to do to an audience, and one that Spider is just getting into the swing of, when BAM!, oh, there it is. The Surprise Ending. So we weren't viewing subjectively; there was one empirical truth all along, and it was: Spider was mental. Why'd he do his mum in? Cause he was mental. Yes, but what made him mental? I'unno, some people just ain't right.
It reminds me of the an exchange I had with the worst director I've ever been directed by, where I was playing a flatmate (oh dear) who flips out and makes life difficult for the young girl he's obsessed with.
Me: This yelling really doesn't feel motivated to me.
DIR: Yeah, it does.
M: No, I'm telling you, it doesn't. Can you tell me why I'm doing it?
DIR: If you can't find any motivation, it's because you're a psycho who might do anything. That's your motivation.
That don't work, see, cause if you're exploring madness, right, you've got to provide a better excuse than "The guy's a loon!". And if you're not going to, you damn well better not build your whole movie up to the point where the spelling-out of such an unsatisfying fact is the culminating point of all that's gone before.
What is there to go back to in Spider? Miranda Richardson making a valiant effort to carry the whole ambiguity-of-madness thing, but being let down by the very unambiguous, dull sanity of the whole affair? Ralph Feinnes directing a performance so inward and implosive it's a wonder there's anyone there at all? The terribly contrived spider's-web motifs that spring up every few minutes (perhaps to confound a FOAF, who was loathe to see Spider on the basis that she hated spiders, even when promised there were no actual spiders in it)?
No, it just don't work. Spider is not a good Cronenberg movie, it's not a good movie about madness, and it's not a good Surprise movie. BAM. It's just plain not very good.