It says a lot that a film as tortured as Dead Ringers is considered “restrained” by David Cronenberg’s standards, but that’s exactly what this 1988 picture is. Based on the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland and partially based on the real-life story of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, this psychological thriller is chilling and wicked in all the best ways.
The tale of the Marcus brothers is captivating and it’s not hard to see what fascinated Cronenberg. The identical twin gynecologists were found dead together in July of 1975, with drug addiction cited as the leading cause of their decline. A spate of bizarre incidents highlighted their careers, some of which find their way into Dead Ringers.
Jeremy Irons stars as twin gynecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle. They have a fruitful practice in Toronto and live together in an apartment, where they share virtually everything. When actress Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) arrives at their clinic, Elliot seduces her in his usual manner. He passes her on to his twin brother, but there’s a problem: Beverly falls in love.
Soon, Claire catches on to the fact that she’s been with twin brothers. She decides to see Beverly anyway and the two share an abuse of prescription drugs. When Claire leaves town for a movie role, Beverly plummets and the drug abuse worsens. Elliot, meanwhile, is also out of reach for a time.
Dead Ringers is a layered psychological drama at its core, with Cronenberg building on many of the motifs explored in his previous works. There’s also a thematic evolution, as with his exploration of human nature and the psyche.
With Beverly and Elliot, the Cronenberg and Norman Snider screenplay parses out notions of gender identity, sexuality and symbiosis. Elliot is the more overtly masculine of the pair, with a self-possessed attitude and a cold approach to romantic endeavours. Beverly is more emotional, weeping and offering more support to his uneasy clientele.
The analysis may sound artificial, as though Cronenberg and Snider are probing prototypes rather than people, but that’s the point. The psychology of the Mantle brothers is inherent in the realm of internal medicine and bathed in Nordic tyranny, where there is no space between casual disinterest and utter volatility. They embody two extremes.
And those extremes surge as Beverly’s drug addiction worsens. Claire is somehow the best and worst thing that has ever happened to him and he responds accordingly, wavering from fits of lavish joy to spells of clenching sorrow. His attitude toward his practice transforms from compassionate to frightening, with his customized instruments the weapons of petrifying assault.
All the while, the drama persists with Cronenberg plunging deeper. The imagery is startling, like during the surgical scenes as the brothers don cardinal gowns or when Beverly has an awful dream about being separated from his brother. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky’s work is disconnected, frosty, exact.
There is, as is usually the case with a Cronenberg film, a lot to pull through. Dead Ringers can be a challenge if the psychology doesn’t catch. But there are perverse rewards within this sonata of sin, with Irons’ elusive but astonishing performance the guiding light.
And Howard Shore’s score is one of the most tragic and stirring pieces of his impressive career. It punctuates Cronenberg’s grand bleakness without overreaching, without frantic sweeps, and it sinks into the consciousness. It’s like the Mantle brothers: inside, always trembling just under the surface of the flesh.