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Non-Review Review: Spider’s Trap

Spider’s Trap is a rather heavy-handed film. There are points where this works to the movie’s advantage – the stark black-and-white cinematography lends itself to exaggeration and effect. There are also points where the movie feels a little overly-earnest and awkward as it fashions its own noir tale about second chances and long-planned revenge. Beautifully shot by director Alan Walsh, Spider’s Trap is often endearing and charming, if not quite consistently brilliant. There are a few notable missteps, but there is also a lot to like.

Things aren't so black-and-white...

Things aren’t so black-and-white…

Spider’s Trap is quite on-the-nose. It is not a film that does nuance or subtlety. In some respects, this feels like a conscious call back to old-school cinema. Shot in black-and-white and dealing in well-worn tropes, there are points where the movie’s blunt approach feels like an homage to an older style of film-making. At one point, early in the film, comedy supporting character (and inept security guard) Nigel plans to become a bodyguard to the stars. As his girlfriend points out, most of his cinematic heroes are long gone.

Perhaps Spider’s Trap is structured as a loving ode to these classic crime films. Of course there’s an ex-con safe-cracker trying to go straight with a second career as a nightclub crooner. Of course he sings thematically appropriate songs as part of his set. Of course he has an important meeting with a “producer from L.A.” just as an old associate pulls him back into the criminal underworld. Of course there is no honour among thieves.

Here's looking at you kid...

Here’s looking at you kid…

There are points where the movie tries a little bit too hard. After hearing Simon play at a nightclub, the American record producer arranges a meeting for 9am the following morning. He repeats this a few times, making it clear that this is a very important deadline, and the audience should take note. “If he’s not there,” the producer insists, “I’m not interested.” When Simon does show up at Aona Records for his meeting, there’s a giant clock sitting on the reception desk to make sure the audience remembers the deadline.

It is a little hokey, but it’s charming – like a lot of Spider’s Trap. It seems Simon’s “ex-con-to-music-star” arc was conceived simply so the movie could have a number of lounge-singing sequences and also so Simon could spend most of the movie in a suave and stylish black-and-white suit that looks very nice on film. A lot of Spider’s Trap feels like an affectionate throwback. After arranging the meeting, Simon’s manager embraces him in the alley by the clearly marked “stage door.” He boasts, “We finally cracked it, kid.”

It's a little on-the-nose at points...

It’s a little on-the-nose at points…

Similarly, the goofy interludes featuring inept security guard Nigel – one night away from retirement – play very well. An overtly comic and absurd character like Nigel would play more awkwardly in a grounded or gritty context, but he fits very well as part of the movie’s heightened and stylised world. (One of the highlights has a bruised and battered Nigel deflecting his attention from the security cameras to read “Self-Defence: The First Steps” written by a “Ross J. Quemp.”) Simon Delaney does good work in the role.

However, the movie hits problems when it comes to more serious characters. As the villain of the piece, Spider works quite well as a cartoonishly evil gangster. Alan Sherlock does good work. The character constantly chews a toothpick menacingly. He débuts stealing a phone and a vehicle from the first person he happens to meet. Even when he closes car doors, he does so with a delightfully over-the-top flourish, as if sweeping a cloak over his shoulder. Meeting Simon, he seeks a shadow from which to dramatically emerge.

Head-to-head...

Head-to-head…

The problem is that the film doesn’t seem to think that this is enough to establish that Spider is a bad man. So this cartoonishly over-the-top violence is accompanied by some rather gratuitous violence towards the movie’s most significant female cast member. There’s nothing wrong with portraying this sort of violence, but it doesn’t fit with the exaggerated quality of the rest of the film, nor does it advance the plot or character arcs. This is merely another example of Spider’s brutality, and the film is almost casual about it.

There are a few points where it feels like the movie might have been better served by reining itself in a little bit. At one point, our would-be criminal masterminds consult with a shady character. Much is made of the fact that this man is a paedophile. He is suitably creepy and unsettling, and his makeshift headquarters are delightfully atmospheric. However, the movie pushes this a little bit too far, making it clear that this character is not a nice person by having him make a sexual reference to one of the trio’s children.

Off-the-record...

Off-the-record…

It’s a moment that feels a little forced and gratuitous, as if Spider’s Trap doesn’t quite trust the audience to realise that these are unpleasant people inhabiting an unpleasant world. It also feels like a moment that lacks any reality – not in terms of style or substance, but in terms of character. As heightened as Spider’s Trap is, it is hard to imagine a successful predator who stands to make a lot of money from his collaboration with these violent criminals deciding to antagonise them in such an overt way.

There are other character beats that feel similarly forced. Simon’s “ex-con-made-good” arc is a staple of these sorts of stories, but Spider’s Trap pushes it to eleven. Simon is not on the cusp of redemption or pulling his life together; he’s on the cusp of super-stardom. This fits quite well within the stylised world of Spider’s Trap, but the movie stumbles when it tries to build big emotional moments from that arc. The movie works best when it acknowledges its own absurdity, and with Simon it feels overly earnest.

Maximum (in)security...

Maximum (in)security…

That said, a lot of Spider’s Trap works very well. Alan Walsh has a great eye, and he composes his scenes beautifully. The black and white footage of Dublin at night is absolutely beautiful. The city lends itself to being filmed in such a way, with the various architectural styles lending Dublin a distinct and stark flavour. From the opening shot of Dublin as seen from the train line between Clontarf and Connolly through to the final stand-off in an industrial wasteland along the canal, Spider’s Trap looks absolutely lovely.

Walsh’s decision to shoot in black-and-white may have been in homage to classic film noir, but he has an eye for the format. There are all manner of shots staged in Spider’s Trap that simply would not look as good in colour. As surreal as the tried-and-tested “one shot at fame” plot may be, it does provide an excuse for Walsh to shoot some lovely atmospheric sequences. Similarly, the decision to clad most of the cast in dark clothes plays up the contrast well.

Hold on in there...

Hold on in there…

Spider’s Trap makes a few missteps along the way, but it is a very charming film that is clearly crafted as a love letter to a particular style of film-making. There are some tonal issues, as the movie often struggles to balance its heightened scripting and plotting with its character beats, but it is generally witty and sharp enough to convince the audience to go along. It looks fantastic, and has enough charm to get past these hurdles.

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