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Entangled in a complex web

If you liked David Cronenberg's 'The Fly,' you'll love his 'Spider.'

It may be a natural catchphrase, but the movie itself is not such an easy sell. Cronenberg's latest is not another crawly horror tale of insectual relations, but a rigorous and bleak psychological drama that takes place almost entirely inside the mind of its disturbed protagonist.

This is Dennis Cleg (Ralph

Fiennes), nicknamed Spider by his mother for a childhood fascination with arachnids and their webs. We first see him emerge slowly from a train, treating each step as a matter for infinite consideration before proceeding. Just released from a mental institution, he arrives at a halfway house in an industrial London suburb not far from his old home.

But there's nothing comforting about this homecoming. As Cleg revisits old stomping grounds, memories Ñ or are they? Ñ haunt him with increasing frequency and complexity. He sees his beloved mother (Miranda Richardson) and his bitter, brooding alcoholic father (Gabriel Byrne), and watches the young Spider (Bradley Hall) watching them. He might be keeping a journal of these revisitations, but we can't be sure because he writes with a stubby pencil in tiny hieroglyphics that fill a notebook as yellowed as his nicotine-stained fingers.

Patterns begin to emerge from Cleg's intersections with his past, and screenwriter Patrick McGrath (adapting his own novel) includes some Freudian threads in the weave of Cleg's schizophrenia.

Cronenberg negotiates the psychic entanglements with a chill precision reminiscent of his 'Dead Ringers,' maintaining his trademark sense of space that draws in like a sucking chest wound. He and his frequent cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, give the film an unsettling beauty that makes the locations seem unfixed in time. The feeling of being at once immersed and detached evokes Cleg's own disorientation and grips like a clammy hand.

Fiennes' almost totally nonverbal performance (when he does speak, it's as cramped and indecipherable as his writing) is a wonder of pained concentration and shambling, fitful itchiness. And he's equaled, if not exceeded, by Richardson as both the warm, worn mother and the snaggletoothed slattern who may have helped Spider's father commit murder.

She also appears briefly as a seeming replacement for the halfway-house matron played by Lynn Redgrave, but this triple role is no stunt. It makes up some of the many reflective shards of Cleg's shattered psyche, captured in the weblike images of a broken pane of glass reconstructed on a doctor's table.

There's little solace to be had here, though some tenderness emerges in the addled poignancy of John Neville (he was Terry Gilliam's Baron Munchausen) as an elderly man for whom the halfway house has become a home, an island of silence in a 'loud world.'

Cronenberg's exacting technical command can on occasion make for an experience so clinical it seems more scientific than cinematic Ñ 'Crash,' for example Ñ and the same is true of the kind of work Fiennes does here. But the threat of Fiennes' Cleg becoming something to be admired rather than someone to be involved with is averted by the spookily poised performance of Hall as little Spider. Their connection (or disconnection) is hauntingly drawn, and 'Spider' creeps into your memory and clings like the wispy strands of a web you thought you'd brushed away.