David Cronenberg has earned his reputation as one of the world's most flamboyant filmmakers. When he announced that his next picture would be called "Spider," fans thought they knew what to expect - a high-voltage sequel to his 1986 shocker "The Fly," perhaps, or a tale of demented entomologists à la the 1988 thriller "Dead Ringers."
Although it's hardly a gentle tale, "Spider" is arguably the subtlest, most carefully textured film of Cronenberg's career.
Its dreamlike, sometimes delirious, images are created with hardly a nod to the computerized special effects so fashionable today, and the main source of its emotional power couldn't be more traditional: excellent acting, especially by Ralph Fiennes as the protagonist and Miranda Richardson in multiple roles.
The story begins when a man known as Spider arrives at a group home for psychologically troubled people in London, a forward step for him after years in a mental institution. There he meets his new landlady (Lynne Redgrave) and fellow boarders.
It's immediately clear that he's unable to form stable relationships in the real world. His life transpires almost entirely in a realm of delusion and hallucination that he can neither control nor escape.
Plunging us into this realm, Cronenberg declines to draw clear boundary lines between illusion and reality, depicting Spider's everyday experiences as a complex web of memories, fantasies, longings, and dreads.
Gradually we realize Spider is making a desperate effort to relive and understand his past, scribbling endless notes in a small diary as he wanders through the neighborhood where he lived as a child.
Bit by bit, we penetrate some of the mystery around him. His real name is Dennis, we learn, and he got his nickname when his affectionate mother (Ms. Richardson) noticed his compulsive habit of weaving little webs from pieces of thread.
His father (Gabriel Byrne) was different from his family, cold in his attitudes and cruel in his behaviors - enough to kill his wife and invite a prostitute (Richardson again) to share the family home. Or are these events too awful to be true, rooted not in Spider's actual past but in the ravings of his unbalanced mind?
That's for him, and us, to figure out from evidence that never stops flowing, fluxing, and shifting before our eyes.
Cronenberg has focused on mental aberration in movies like "Dead Ringers" and the 1982 fantasy "Videodrome," not to mention the '90s films "Naked Lunch" and "Crash," based on notorious novels by William S. Burroughs and J.G. Ballard.
"Spider" takes its story from the same-titled book by Patrick McGrath, who worked with Cronenberg on the screenplay.
McGrath's first draft called for lots of spidery images as well as a voice-over narration to guide viewers through the tangled plot, but Cronenberg rejected both devices.
"I really felt this was a different kind of movie," he said at the Cannes film festival last summer, where it had its world première. "I'd rather use damp, moldy wallpaper ... to give you the interior of Spider's mind."
He has succeeded, making the film as compelling as the hopeful Spider we want to root for, and also as troubling as the events and feelings Spider is trying to sort through.
Credit for the film's effectiveness also goes to Mr. Fiennes, who gives what may be his most deeply introspective and technically challenging performance to date - bringing to vivid life a character so fearful and withdrawn he can barely communicate with those around him.
The key to this achievement is Fiennes's ability to play Spider, not as a walking case history, but as a three-dimensional figure whose disabilities don't disqualify him from full empathy and compassion.
"It wasn't a mentally ill person I wanted to play," he said at the Toronto film festival last fall. "It was a ... human being suffering a great confusion. I'm very wary of chucking around labels like 'schizophrenia.' My starting point was a human being who is solving problems in his own particular, unique way."
Such humanistic filmmaking hasn't been Cronenberg's specialty. "Spider" brings out fresh aspects of his creative personality, apparently because the hero's challenges touched responsive chords in his own thought.
"I really identify with Spider," he said at Toronto. "I'm just that far away from being Spider at any given moment, frankly."
Cronenberg added that he wouldn't be overly surprised to find himself "walking in the streets, mumbling - probably about the film business - in an old coat with a tattered lining and all my possessions in a small cardboard suitcase that's falling apart.
"It's an old adage in art that you have to be specific to be universal," he said. "Spider is a very specific creature.... I can get very academic about it after the fact, but at the time I had a very passionate, visceral, intuitive desire to bring Spider to life."
Despite the film's artistic success, its US distributors seem as confused as Spider about how to market it.
The ad campaign seems unsure whether to promote it as a psychological drama, a serious art film, or a Cronenberg-style shocker. In the end, it's all three.
• Rated R for violence, sex, and vulgar language.