Directed by: David Cronenberg.
Written by: David Cronenberg and Norman Snider based on the book by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland.
Starring: Jeremy Irons (Beverly Mantle / Elliot Mantle), Geneviève Bujold (Claire Niveau), Heidi von Palleske (Cary), Barbara Gordon (Danuta), Shirley Douglas (Laura), Stephen Lack (Anders Wolleck), Nick Nichols (Leo), Lynne Cormack (Arlene), Damir Andrei (Birchall), Miriam Newhouse (Mrs. Bookman).
There is an icy cold precision to David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers which makes it so very disturbing. The plot – about twin gynecologists, who are both geniuses, who pass women back and forth without their knowledge, and eventually succumb to a spiral of despair, drug use and violence – very easily could have been turned into an exploitation film – the kind of cheesy film you come across on cable late at night enjoy, then forget. You won’t necessarily enjoy Dead Ringers – but you won’t forget it either. Like Cronenberg’s best movies, it burrows under your skin and stays there.
Beverly and Elliot Mantle (both played, brilliantly, by Jeremy Irons) are Toronto born twins who more intimately involved with each other’s lives then they should be. They run a successful practice – helping rich women get pregnant – and are minor celebrities in the medical field. Beverly is smart, shy, awkward and excels at research. Elliot is outgoing, charming – and excels at getting the brothers the money, they need to continue to do their research. The brothers have always “shared” women – without telling the women of course – and don’t have a problem with it. Elliot believes that Beverly is so shy and awkward that he’d still be a virgin if it weren’t for him. It is an arrival of a woman – Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold) – a famous actress – who will ultimately start the brothers’ downward spiral. As always, Elliot “gets” her first – and then passes her off to Beverly. Beverly then does something stupid – and falls in love with her. She falls for him as well – which causes both twins different problems. She brings her drug addiction into her relationship – and Beverly is soon caught up in it as well. Never having had a real girlfriend before, he is also vulnerable to petty, almost teenage boy level jealousy. Elliot is jealous as well – but in a different way. Beverly and Elliot have always been the most important person in each other’s lives, but Claire changes that.
Dead Ringers is remarkable on several levels. From a technical standpoint, the film is probably the best example of having one actor play two characters in cinema history. Cronenberg doesn’t invent new tricks to cover up the way he does things – he just does in more complex way. He doesn’t try to hide the seam separating the two characters in a shadow, but instead Cronenberg moves his camera – the splice changing positions. I’ve seen the film a number of times now, and I never notice a seam. The film works on other technical levels as well – Howard Shore’s score is one of his best, Cronenberg’s use of color, in particular the blood red surgical gowns the twins use, is striking. The gynecological tools invented by Beverly late in the film are perhaps the most disturbing things Cronenberg has ever put in a movie, which ranks them among the most disturbing in any movie, ever. If Cronenberg’s technical specs in the movie are impeccable – and he directs with the cold precision of a surgeon, the movie itself benefits from that ton. The film doesn’t shy away from the gory details of the movie – but presents it with a clinical view that makes it all the more troubling.
The best thing in the movie may well be Jeremy Irons performances as the twins. He wasn’t the first, nor the last, to play dual roles in a movie – but he may well be the best. Beverly and Elliot look identical – and yet there is not a moment in the film, not even a silent one, when you do not know which one you’re looking at. It’s all in subtle ways Irons moves, speaks and carries himself. He delivers not one, but two, great performances of a man coming apart at the seams – but for different reasons – and it he makes their every move clear. It’s one of the great screen performances in history.
You could nitpick a few things in Dead Ringers if you were so inclined. The fact that Bujold’s character disappears from the movie for the second half (to show up near the end) is a loss – she sets everything in motion, than leaves, which makes her more of a dramatic convenience than a character. Elliot’s descent into madness and drug addiction happens perhaps a little too fast – one scene his “girlfriend” is trying to stop him from taking drugs, the next he’s a spaced out junkie.
But those things don’t bother me much in Dead Ringers – the movie can only do so much, and it does need to get to its shattering climax. That climax is creepy, tragic, haunting and pathetic all at once – (I want ice cream!) and it’s also inevitable. Beverly and Elliot deserve each other.