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Quibbling about how much a director has fooled with an adapted text is not just tedious for the listener. It can also vault the quibbler into supergeekdom of the most irrelevant kind: a narrative nitpicker whose dedication to source material leads him to misunderstand or deliberately dismiss the obligations, values, and possibilities of different art forms. But textual integrity is often a question of how many angels should be filmed tap-dancing on the head of a pin, so details such as the shape of Frodo’s ears (not pointed, people!) can be just as important as whether the “Cell Block Tango” happened in prison or in Roxie Hart’s mind. Or whether a novel of painstaking psychological revealment from an author noted for gut-punching plot twists is betrayed or validated by a film that suspends the narrative in a brackish pool of ambiguity.

That the second question can even be asked of Spider is a good indication that director David Cronenberg is over his most problematic period. The Canadian auteur—who began by making high-art B-movies that found repulsion in the things we’re supposed to see as erotic or innocent—spent a miserable but blessedly short stretch a few years ago vainly trying to locate the eroticism in things we find disgusting or depraved. We mostly found these explorations boring, whether Cronenberg was depicting blond mannequins coupling with all the horsepower of a Yugo and all the warmth of chrome in Crash or toying with the goopy possibilities of technological and biological plug-ins in eXistenZ. Spider, adapted by Patrick McGrath from his novel, is neither a return to Cronenberg’s body-terror nor a continuation of his more recent work. The film is claustrophobically small and unforgivably slow to begin, and it chews over its one idea—the twisted comforts of dementia—relentlessly.

In an almost wordless performance, Ralph Fiennes plays Spider, a cringing wreck of a man released from an institution to a London halfway house. Cronenberg’s choicest scene is the film’s first: A train unloads, and, with the naive faith of those trained to trust the emphasis of the images in front of us, we search the crowd for the character we’re supposed to seize on. Is it the laughing couple? The well-dressed businessman? Our man emerges last, his four shirts buttoned to the neck. He clutches a soiled slip of paper that promises a seminormal future but will plunge him into his turbulent past.

The boarding house it directs him to is run by a Mrs. Wilkinson, played by Lynn Redgrave as the kind of purse-lipped matron for whom becoming too involved in her charges’ considerable needs is never a question. Her building is a house of shadows: The elderly men inside are harmless enough to subsist without nurses and lithium, but they’ve been outcasts so long they have nowhere else to go. Spider, however, knows the neighborhood—he grew up nearby as little Dennis Cleg—and being at Mrs. Wilkinson’s plummets him back into the childhood trauma that led him there in the first place.

Or maybe he’s just crazy as a loon, and the trauma is a self-made justification for an act of evil. By leaving the book’s original land mines ambiguous, Cronenberg shifts the story’s narrative focus entirely—it becomes a portrait of psychopathy, painted in the nauseating yellows and grays of mental and economic hopelessness. Fiennes does a great job—which in the case of this showy, almost wordless role, means that he does very little: He’s skinny and unkempt, and he rolls out all his tics—shuffling, mumbling, twitching—at once in a lavish buffet of paranoid dementia.

While wandering around the grim neighborhood, Spider is beset by flashbacks to his childhood. He was the doted-upon child of a well-mannered mother (Miranda Richardson) trying to keep up her dignity and the family’s appearances despite the shabby state they’ve been driven to by her loutish drunk of a husband (Gabriel Byrne). Mrs. Cleg tenderly calls her son by his arachnoid pet name and lets him construct elaborate string webs in his room—the same webs a grown Spider will weave in the boarding house. Over time, Dad’s tomcatting ways get the best of him, and he brutally replaces his working-class madonna with a mossy-toothed whore, a braying local tart (also played by Richardson) who smugly adopts mother-and-wife duties in the Cleg home, to the horror of the boy.

What Really Happened is of little interest to this version of events, although it was once of great interest to McGrath, a novelist who’s made a veritable science of the unreliable narrator. By fudging the shocks, his adaptation becomes a lingering look at full-blown mental illness, with nowhere to go but ’round in circles like the crazy-tiny scribblings in Spider’s indecipherable diary. Up go the webs, down goes the diary under a floorboard—Spider can’t get any madder: He’s already either witnessed or performed an act of violence, so that’s out, and there aren’t any revelations to be made about his past except that it was hardscrabble and unpleasant no matter whose telling you believe.

The film has a static, grisly beauty, but it does nothing with young Spider’s story except recast it in grown-up, symbolic terms. The sight from his rooming-house window, for example, is a demonically glowing gasworks webbed with girders, dangerous energy in a flimsy cage. Though the image is a too-apt metaphor for Spider’s protagonist, it could also describe its director: a man who has unwisely poured his volatile brilliance into a cramped, transparent structure that is grimly picturesque but ultimately a little pointless. CP