Spider (2002) Director David Cronenberg and writer Patrick McGrath (who also wrote the novel the film is based upon) present an intricately woven study of a profoundly disturbed man, played by Ralph Fiennes. After spending years in an asylum, Spider is released into the custody of a boarding house. The title refers to the main character’s nickname, but it serves as an apt metaphor for the tangled psychological web he weaves. As the character delves into his troubled childhood and layers of his psyche are slowly revealed (Cronenberg made a point of never mentioning the word “schizophrenia”), we’re left to speculate whether the events in the film occurred, or if they’re fabrications of Spider’s mind. Spider features all-around excellent performances by a stellar cast, including Fiennes, Miranda Richardson (in three roles) and Gabriel Byrne, as Spider’s absentee father Bill. It explores mental illness, as experienced through a protagonist with an unreliable perspective, challenging us to re-examine the events as they unfold.
Rating: ****. Available on DVD
eXistenZ (1999) With the push toward increasingly sophisticated game systems, this film seems more relevant now, compared to when it debuted, more than 20 years ago. Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as famous video game designer Allegra Geller and Jude Law (sporting a Canadian accent) plays Ted Pikul, a young marketing employee/bodyguard by proxy. During a test run of Allegra’s newest game “Existenz” (an immersive experience that jacks directly into the user’s nervous system), a would-be assassin attempts to eradicate her. Allegra and Ted successfully flee the botched assassination attempt, only to find themselves evading malevolent forces that are out to get them and her game.
eXistenZ features some inspired, grotesque creations (including an organic game system that’s connected to an umbilicus and breathes, along with a gun constructed of small animal carcasses that shoots human teeth), but it’s more than a Cronenberg freak show. The film effortlessly flits back and forth between the virtual and real worlds, as Allegra and Ted enter the distorted reality of eXistenZ (many of the conceits within the universe of eXistenZ may seem second nature to those familiar with the conventions of modern games). Are they playing a game, or is the game playing them? We’re never quite sure, right up until the film’s conclusion.
Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray (Region B), DVD and Hoopla
Naked Lunch (1991) “Exterminate all rational thought,” says main character Bill Lee (Peter Weller), an appropriate sentiment for this frustrating, intriguing film, loosely based on William S. Burrough’s semi-autobiographical novel. The impressive cast includes Judy Davis in a dual role, Ian Holm and Roy Scheider, all of whom seem to be game with whatever director/writer Cronenberg throws at them. After Bill (a pest exterminator hooked on “bug powder”) accidentally shoots and kills his wife (in an incident paralleling a real-life incident in the author’s life), he finds himself steeped in intrigue and conspiracy. Soon, he’s in a foreign land, guided by the shadowy agents of Interzone, while coming to grips with his sexual ambiguity (I think). Among the visual highlights are the truly inspired and repulsive Chris Walas creature effects, including typewriters that become beetles, and the humanoid Mugwumps, spurting bodily fluids from their heads (don’t ask). Howard Shore’s frenetic, jazzy score fits the film’s discordant themes perfectly. At the end of the day, I’m stuck in a Schrödinger's cat sort of dilemma, with opposing impressions of the film. I admired the craftsmanship and performances, but couldn’t invest myself in the characters or their situations. Naked Lunch remains as distant and unfathomable as ever, a triumph of style and mood over coherence.
Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Crash (1996) Not to be confused with the 2004 Paul Haggis movie with the same name, writer/director David Cronenberg (working from a novel by J.G. Ballard) explores kink and bodily transformation, within the milieu of automobile accidents. After a near-fatal car crash, a film director (James Spader) experiences a re-birth of sorts. Along with another car crash survivor (Holly Hunter), they get their kicks at an underground club, hosted by Vaughan (Elias Koteas) a man with a masochistic streak (or as he describes it, “the re-shaping of the human body by modern technology.”) and a flair for the dramatic. Along with stunt drivers, he stages recreations of famous car crashes (i.e., James Dean’s deadly 1955 car accident). Vaughan and the individuals in the club keep raising the stakes to gain sexual satisfaction. The film becomes little more than one ugly scene after another, hammering the theme of car crashes as a metaphor for sex, with two bodies merging together in one violative act. The net result is reductive and off-putting, in one of Cronenberg’s least accessible (or defensible) films.
Rating: **. Available on DVD
Maps to the Stars (2014) David Cronenberg’s latest (and to date, last) feature film explores the dark side of Hollywood, and the ephemeral quality of fame. It could be regarded as his answer to Day of the Locust (hint: see that film instead), but it’s a big disappointment, with stale social commentary that’s neither insightful nor novel. Almost everyone in the film is morally bankrupt, masking their true intentions and giving us no one to connect with. Julianne Moore stars as Havana Segrand, a narcissistic, has-been diva, haunted by her late mother’s notoriety. Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a self-help guru, father to a vindictive, washed up child star son Benjie (Evan Bird) and estranged to his self-destructive, schizophrenic daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska). It’s a distancing, unpleasant experience that only made me want to watch more of Cronenberg’s earlier work.
Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix