There has to be a way for movie reviews to just come out and say "This is a really interesting movie, and is really worth seeing, even if it may not make total sense or be the best movie of all time." The reviews for this film were pretty tepid, acknowledging that it's creepy, but without saying a whole lot else, and I didn't make the priority that I should have made to see it in theaters [not to mention that I wasn't at all thrilled with Prisoners, the director's prior film... which was actually shot after this one]. Since then, however, I've had two friends see it and hound me to watch it, so I finally relented and watched it with a Torontonian friend... as everyone also told me that it makes Toronto look like an exceedingly creepy place.
Alrighty then. This is a movie that you have to pay close attention to, and will give you lots of interpretive fun afterward. It opens with a text saying "Chaos is order yet undeciphered." I think the Jewel Osco grocery store at Berwyn and Foster in Chicago disproves that statement, but lets accept it at face value for now. We hear a voice message from the character's mom, and see a pregnant woman sitting on a bed. Then we're in an underground sex club, where a number of men, including our buddy Jake, are watching a show. A woman comes on stage, places a serving platter on stage, lifts the top, revealing a giant spider, and soon makes to crush it with her high heel [we don't see her do it]. This refers to "crush" fetish, in which people watch women in high heels step on and kill mice and other small things. Delightful, huh? And here I thought I was pretty kinky.
Next we see Jake as Adam, professor, lecturing his students on dictatorships and how this is "a pattern that repeats throughout history." You know that whatever a professor is lecturing about in a film is pretty much always a big interpretive clue, right? Of course you do. Then we see Adam at home in his extremly spare apartment, then see him fucking his girlfriend, Mary, seeming a little bit as though he fucked her too hard and she's not so into it. By the way, she's not pregnant, so who was the lady at the beginning? Then we see him give pretty much the same lecture, again about how events in history always repeat [functioning as interpretive yellow highlighting], and see him fucking Mary again and, yeah, this time it is really clear that she finds it all a bit rough for her taste.
One day at work, a guy makes conversation with Adam about movies and recommends one, called "Where There's a Will, There's a Way," which Adam picks up at the video store later [note posters for Vertigo and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman]. Adam watches the movie, goes to bed, and all of a sudden we're in a bizarre glamorous world with really loud music--and it was Adam dreaming about the movie. He goes back to it, and finds that there's a walk-on actor who looks exactly like him. After a bit of stalking and internet research, he finds out the guy's name and the name of the agency that represents him. By the way, you'll notice that Adam compares a ripped-in-half photo of himself to the photo on the internet. Pay attention to that photo. In here he lectures AGAIN about how all great events get repeated, and it's like "GOT IT, thank you!"
He goes to the agency and the security guard recognizes him--as the actor. He says that he hasn't been by in about six months, and gives him an envelope with the name of the actor--Alex--that is marked "personal and confidential." Adam calls the number and Alex's wife answers--and assumes it is Alex. It's a great scene... the call starts out normal and weird in a funny way, then slowly turns very creepy. Later, Adam tries again, and this time actually gets Alex, who thinks he's a stalker and tells him never call again. Then: we go to Alex, and see him in an apartment that is much nicer than Adam's, and decorated in all shades of gray. And there's Alex's wife Helen, who looks quite a bit like Mary, Adam's girlfriend, and is pregnant--ahhh, so she's the one we saw at the beginning. She asks who was on the phone, and it soon becomes apparent that he has had an affair in the past.
SPOILERS > > >
So Alex and his wife separetely investigate Adam. He gets a call from Alex, saying he wants to meet, and giving a time and place. Adam goes outside, and who should show up, but Mary. She is freaked at seeing him, and that he doesn't recognize her. They speak for a while, and she says that she is six months pregnant [and he was gone from his talent agency for six months, hmmm....]. That night, she is very upset, and says that she doesn't believe Alex when he says he doesn't know what's going on. Meanwhile, Adam has a dream where a nude woman with a spider's head walks by him down a long hallway. The next day, there is a highly sexualized woman walking ahead of him down the hallway to the hotel meeting place, very much like the dream before. Adam just goes into the hotel room without knocking, and soon Alex also comes in. They meet, and discover that they are identical down to the hands, and they both have the same scar on their stomachs. Adam gets freaked, says it was a mistake, and leaves.
The next day, Alex follows Adam, and sees his girlfriend Mary. He follows her that day. We see him practicing asking "Did you fuck my wife?" in the mirror, tells himself "That's good, that'll work." Then he meets with Adam and asks him if he fucked his wife. Adam pointedly does not give a straight answer. Alex tells him that he's going to take Mary away for the weekend and fuck her, and then they'll be "even," and then he'll be out of Alex's life forever. Adam [or is it Alex?] has dinner with his mother, played by Isabella Rossellini, and she tells him that he "has trouble sleeping with just one woman," and that it's good he gave up "trying to be a third-rate actor." Right after that, we see a wide shot of Toronto, with a giant spider climbing over it. The spider is an obvious reference to the scultpure of Louise Bourgeois, occurs right after the scene with the mother, and by the way, Bourgeois has a big spider in front of the National Gallery of Canada, and its title is "Mother Spider."
Alex takes Mary away for the weekend, and during that time, Adam goes over to Alex's apartment. He is let in by the security guard, who we discover was at the sex club at the beginning. He informs Adam, thinking he's Alex, that the sex club has changed keys. Then Helen comes home, and they have awkward talk, although she seems to prefer Adam to Alex. She invites him to bed, where they cuddle and she places his hand on her pregnant belly. You're trying to figure out whether she knows it's Adam when she whispers "Did you have a good day at school?" indicating that she does know. Later that night, Adam gets up and goes out to the living room. Helen comes in, Adam says he's sorry, and they have sex. This is intercut with Alex in a hotel room with Mary, where she suddenly gets upset and calls it all off because he has a mark on his finger from a ring, and he doesn't wear a ring. They drive home and are fighting, her saying he's not a man, and suddenly--they get in an accident and the car flips over! Seems like no one has survived, and there's a spider-web pattern in the broken glass of the window.
Now, if you want to watch this movie, even if you've read this far, I suggest you skip out of the spoilers now, in order to save a big surprise for yourself. Next morning, Adam puts on Alex's clothes and it kind of seems like he's going to start living as Alex now. He finds the envelope marked personal and confidential and opens it. It's a key... they new key to the sex club. He calls to Helen, in the other room, saying he might be out late that night. She doesn't respond, so he goes into the room, and... she is now a giant spider that backs defensively into the corner! Adam doesn't look entirely surprised, he just sighs in a resigned way--and the movie ends!
Alright, let us interpret! You can find a number of different interpretations on the internet, and I read through a lot of them but I'm just going to tell you the one I came to agree with. First, there's only one Jake, not two. That should be one of your first guesses, and it seems to be the case. There is some question [which I haven't decided yet] on whether all of the scenes we're seeing are happening chronologically, or whether his affair with Mary is the affair Helen was worried about. But it seems that the real Jake is Alex, the horny actor. He is a horny guy, goes to sex clubs, and had an affair in the past. Now his wife is about to have a baby, and he's scared of that commitment and feeling trapped. Trapped... like in a spider's web. He invents Adam as the more sedate, quiet side of himself, to see himself as a guy who could marry and settle down... although Adam does like to fuck harder than his girlfriend likes, as we see. Mary sees Alex as Adam at the school and is freaked out, as he didn't recognize her. Women in the film equal spiders, creatures who trap men in their web. Blah, blah, the car crash can be seen as Adam "killing off" Alex and learning to settle down with Helen. Then he gets the key, and temptation strikes again... he wants to go back to the sex club. He walks into the room and sees Helen as a huge spider, and sighs... if he's going to settle down with her, he's going to have to learn to deal with that creepy, entrapped feeling. And seeing his wide as a giant spider. Ain't love grand?
< < < SPOILERS END
So, it's good. It's beautifully shot and well-made and fascinating from beginning to end, and all the performances are excellent. And it'll give you lots to talk about and think about and puzzle over. So, a great night at the movies. The only problem is... once you unravel it, it's a pretty pedestrian story. Run of the mill, without extremely deep characterization [except on the part of Helen, who all but runs away with the movie], and... kind of not much to it, except its complicated storytelling. It's just an extremely artful and convoluted way to tell a rather simplistic story. It's fun to unravel, but the unraveling is about all there is to it.
Yes, but once you figure it out, it becomes a bit diminished.