Spider: Overnight Oatmeal

Year Released: 2002
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Lynn Redgrave, Gabriel Byrne, Miranda Richardson, John Neville
(R, 98 min.)

"The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n." John Milton

If you missed its debut in theaters, be sure to rent this excellent portrait of one man's spiraling descent into madness. There are both tricks and treats in this superb exploration of the shadows of the human psyche with all their dark turns, blind alleys, and webs of deceit. Forget fast action and cheap thrills and instead savor Spider for its innovative story telling, creative cinematography, and consummate acting.

The most amazing thing about Spider is Ralph Fiennes. He plays Dennis Cleg, nicknamed Spider by his mum, a thirty-year-old schizophrenic trying to make the transition from asylum to halfway house. Such a touch for the telling detail I have never witnessed on screen before. As the film begins we wade through a slew of passengers getting off the train. Finally Spider (Fiennes) descends and immediately we know we are in for an extraordinary experience. He deposits the ancient suitcase on the platform with the tentative deliberation of Alice entering Wonderland, and indeed, after twenty years inside, even the muted grays of shabby London are a world apart.

He walks somewhat askew, all the while mumbling half syllables that you almost catch, as he treks to his new lodgings, “an island ruled by a tyrant queen,” as fellow resident Terrene (John Neville), puts it. The halfway house is a labyrinth of locked doors and cheerless corridors presided over by an especially grim and unrecognizable Lynn Redgrave, who somehow manages to make Nurse Ratchett seem Miss Congeniality by contrast. Her “Wakey, wakey,” morning rousing has al the warmth of cold steel and every bit its unbending resolve.

The first night Spider lies in a fetal position in his bath – a none too inviting rusty red, and only luke warm at best, I’d bet, but this rebirth imagery is mostly along the lines of Mary Shelley’s classic. The following morning he appears for the breakfast of institutional gruel wearing not less than four shirts superimposed upon each other --a fact which Miss Wilkinson loses no time in bringing to ridicule. But Terrence, who again proves that wit can find fertile ground in even the unbalanced mind, counters, “Clothes maketh the man; and the less there is of the man, the more the need for clothes.” Which makes one wonder if, indeed, the inmates shouldn’t in fact be running the asylum, or halfway house, that is.

As the day continues we follow Spider as he explores his new surroundings, the first stop being a crop of dilapidated buildings next to a small garden plot. Spider lies down on the earth and cries. Later on he peeks into a curtained dwelling where a mother converses with her son, but Spider, for the first time speaking so we can understand him, utters the ten-year-old’s words just before he does. How much better than a simple flash back – this textured vision of past memories!

And the fact that Spider, the grown man, either invisible to the participants or at least an nonentity, appears as an observer right next to his younger self filters all this through his informed perception. He sits at the bar when young Spider comes to retrieve his father for dinner, and again experiences the shock and humiliation when that young boy is flashed the exposed breast of blond tart who with her two obnoxious friends, laughs loudly over his discomfort.

Along with Spider we too eavesdrop on his former life as it plays before us -- the earthy kiss that his father plants upon his mother in the courtyard as Spider looks down in disapproval, his mother painting her lips as he teases string into a web like someone weaving yarn, and then his father’s infatuation with the blond tart and his ultimate assignations with her.

After each encounter, Spider returns to his quarters and takes his tattered notebook from its hiding place underneath the strip of linoleum. Wearing his wrinkled trench coat he leans against the dresser to record things in miniscule print that wanders over the crowded pages, all the time muttering half-understood phrases. In these shots the right half of the screen is a black shadow, perhaps suggesting that we are not getting the full picture of things.

We also get some flashbacks of his life at the asylum, which compared to the halfway house, seems almost idyllic. The men all wear sporty corduroy pants and cozy knit sweaters as they ramble about on rolling green fields. Each of them carries a sock tucked into the crouch of his pants, and their attempts to retrieve these socks and their assorted treasures are both humorous and pathetic at the same time. Spider smoothes a slightly pornographic photo of a buxom blond, trying to find something more than its flatness under his caressing fingers. Is it that all blonds look alike or does this photo somehow resemble the tart of those childhood memories, we wonder? And why is Spider so terrified of the gas fireplace, smelling his clothes whenever he is near it?

The narrator of Spider is less than reliable, but we have our own lack of vision to blame for an ending that slaps us face down in the sand like an unforeseen wave on the seashore. To the practiced eye, beneath the transparent surf quite visible clues have been churning beneath the troubled waters of Spider’s fragile mind.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Spider consumes copious cups of coffee along with cigarettes to wash them down, but there is not too much real food in our film. Perhaps this is to echo the spiritual malnutrition that eats away at his psyche.

Oh, there is that quivering bowl of eels that the blond tart puts on the table for Spider, as she tells him, ”I’ve made something special for you, I have.” But with the exception of my husband and some assorted Japanese cooks, I doubt this dish would have much appeal.

I’m opting then, for the gruel that begins the day at our halfway house, hoping that in the steamy kitchen, the cook and not Miss Wilkinson, holds sway.

I’ve chosen the more traditional Irish or Scottish steel cut variety, often sold in metal cans, where the seeds have not been rolled but just broken up. It takes somewhat longer to cook, but is more hearty and healthy, too. 

“Wakey, wakey. It’s time for breakfast.”

Overnight Oatmeal

  • 1 cup steel cut oats 
  • 1 cup dried cranberries 
  • 1 cup dried figs 
  • 4 cups water 
  • 1/2 cup half-and-half

In a slow cooker, combine all ingredients and set to low heat. Cover and let cook for 8 to 9 hours.

Stir and remove to serving bowls. This method works best if started before you go to bed. This way your oatmeal will be finished by morning.

Recipe Source: Food Network