I watch David Cronenberg films for one reason and that is to have my eyes opened. Whether it is through the gore of an early film like Scanners or the beauty of a more recent movie like A Dangerous Method, his visuals are always striking and his themes, challenging. Few film makers can claim to have been as influential as Cronenberg while also avoiding the trappings of mainstream Hollywood and whatever he turns his attention to, something weird and unique will invariably be formed. Dead Ringers is his 1988 film which looks at the connection that twins share; biologically, mentally and physically. It straddles the gap between body horror and beautiful cinematography but was made firmly during his body horror era. For the director it is a somewhat restrained film but one which runs deep with ideas although doesn’t boil over into all out gore.
Elliot and Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons) are brilliant gynaecologists and identical twins. Working out of their Toronto office, the two men specialise in fertility and their methods are both effective but daring. The twin’s lives are blurred by their frequent interchanging. The two impersonate each other at dinners, awards ceremonies and even with women. Early on in the film, the brothers begin to share the life of an actress called Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) and when the quieter Beverly begins to fall for her, his more aggressive brother Elliot suspects that her presence is harming their relationship.
Like much of Cronenberg’s work, Dead Ringers is interesting and creepy. The way in which the two leads swap lives at the drop of a hat is inherently disturbing and when sex is involved it’s even more unsettling. While the central idea has a lot going for it, I began to lose interest around half way through and the strange and well thought out climax failed to bring me back in. Jeremy Irons is excellent as both men, altering his performance noticeably in order to convey the very different personalities but occasionally blurring the lines, just as the characters themselves do. His performance is a highlight of the movie. Geneviève Bujold was fine but didn’t really convince me but there was a nice cameo from Cronenberg regular Stephen Lack.
The film’s cinematography is great and while not as awe inspiring as the director’s latest work, it’s assured and very clever. The director has to create the illusion of two separate characters while using only one actor and this is achieved via reverse shots using doubles and a surprising number of computer-controlled, moving-matte shots. These look fantastic and nothing like the sort of split screen cinematography which would have been used just years before. There is no obvious outline around one of the characters to indicate they were super imposed and the effect still looks great after twenty-five years.
The themes which run through Dead Ringers are eerie and well written but there was something about the film which just failed to grab me. Perhaps it was that I missed the blood and guts, of which there was some but not much, or maybe I was just tired. Either way Dead Ringers sits towards the bottom of Cronenberg’s splendid filmography for me but nonetheless features an interesting and well executed idea as well as a superb central performance.
- The central parts were first offered to Robert De Niro and then William Hurt before Jeremy Irons took the role(s).
- Irons initially used two separate dressing rooms to help separate the characters but reverted to one when he realised that the blurring of the characters was part of the film.
- The movie is based on two real life twins, Stuart and Cyril Marcus, whose lives shared many similar aspects to the characters in this movie, including its conclusion.