There aren’t any spoilers in this review, so you can read ahead without the fear of ruining anything about the plot!
Atmosphere is the word that first comes to mind when reminding myself of Spider, the debut short film from director, writer and editor (among many other things…) Mark Woollon. With a refreshingly stripped back story, startlingly good performances and some of the finer digital black and white cinematography I’ve seen attached to any film in quite a while (it always seems to look tacky on digital, but not here…), Spider was so good that I’m not afraid to admit that it caught me by surprise. Focusing on David Cross (played by William Hawkes, in a wonderfully energetic, demanding performance), a man struggling but failing to be open and surrounded by his struggles, the film keeps its cards close to its chest, revealing the most minute fragments of information to the audience gradually and never quite letting them see the full story, seemingly enjoying toying with them just a little more than it already is. By staying enigmatic, however, the film ironically opens up more to any audience member, allowing them to fill in the blanks as they see fit, which only adds to the fear created – a distinct, chilling fear of the unknown, emphasised by the consistent use of enigma codes here. The shadowy lighting, the brightness at just the right setting so the film is easy enough to follow but always just slightly more challenging and more involving than most, the gorgeous cinematography by Matthew Fowler – it all culminates in this strikingly atmospheric and dense experience, especially considering the runtime of around thirteen minutes.
The sound design is just wonderful. The droning score and soundtrack are both thrilling, despite the fact that they are little used. The dance sequence especially is engrossing, the slight discomfort emanating from the unpredictability of William Hawkes’ David is almost unbearable, and made even worse by the evident tenderness brought to the moment by Penelope Wildgoose, who plays David’s sick mother. In fact, that scene may just be my favourite aside from the ending, which is a completely different monster to try to tackle (especially when trying to evade spoilers, I really don’t want to ruin this!), one that is played out so gently by the camera – which opts to sit back and quietly observe the brilliantly physical and manic performance by Hawkes – that it’s hard to believe. This kind of bizarre patience on Woollon’s behalf really does add a great deal to what he does here, with the form seeming to fight with the performers adding even more to the central conflicts. By being at war with itself in its form, the film only emphasises the struggles that the main character is having with himself, this self destructive mindset also being brought forward and further suggested by the tender cinematography. It’s something rarely seen – restriction on the director’s part – but when it is there and it is noticeable, it always has a great impact on how the film itself plays out, and it certainly works its magic here.
The influences on the film are somewhat clear, in an endearing way. Some very Bressonian shots that close in on hands are spread throughout, and the detached style also brings Bresson to mind more. The use of shadows and darkness brings to mind the likes of Bela Tarr and the entire genre of film noir, this reliance on the darkness to reflect the mindset of the character (or more so, their perspective of their world as a dismal one) is pitch perfect. It just clicks in a beautiful way, and feels honest. This fascinating merging of the tenderness and the more psychologically frightening/thrilling at play here is just as baffling and impressive as it is startling, with the switches between the two being so noticeable as a shift in perspective that they’re jarring in the best way possible, adding a certain tension as the audience can’t help but feel uncomfortable whenever they settle into a scene, for fear of being ripped out of it and thrust into the next – it sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does, and that’s what makes it so impressive.
I’m completely aware that I haven’t written as much as I usually do on short films here, but much of the effect that this one has is so subtle and psychological that some of it is simply inexplicable. Woollon’s hold on an audience is frankly ridiculous so early on, and there isn’t really anything to moan about – the performances, the cinematography, the sound design and the narrative are all pretty damn wonderful – so, this once, I’ll keep it brief. Looking forward very much to what Woollon has in store next, hoping that it will be as quietly affecting as this one is. Colour me impressed… and disturbed.