From The Parallax Review Vaults: Dead Ringers (1988)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Dead Ringers was for the “On Cable” section of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

Now Playing on Encore Drama, Encore Mystery, Indieplex

No filmmaker currently working manages to maintain such a meticulously cold, clinical feel to their films as David Cronenberg. The fact that he creates an icy tone that keeps the audience at arm’s length, while managing to draw out such strong emotions of horror, disgust, and anger, makes him not only a divisive figure among audiences and critics, but also one of the most controversial directors of the past 35 years. While I understand if someone hates his work, I personally find his films to be consistently compelling. If you disagree with that opinion, you will probably disagree violently when I say that Dead Ringers is one of the finest films ever made.

Identical twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle (Jeremy Irons, splendid in both roles) are successful fertility experts to the rich and famous in Toronto. The Mantle twins have achieved a high measure of success in their lives because of the fact that they are two distinct personalities acting as one. Beverly is the introverted one, comfortable doing research, seeing patients, and performing surgeries. Elliot is an extrovert who is only too happy to be the face of their practice, teaching at a local medical school, accepting awards, and schmoozing powerful people to get research grants. They are so connected, they share an apartment (despite the fact that they are well into their 40s) and maintain the highly unethical practice of sharing women. Charismatic playboy Elliot sweeps them off their feet and disarmingly shy Beverly takes advantage of Elliot’s groundwork when it’s his turn. The women are never the wiser and it reinforces the bond between the brothers, never allowing an outside influence to come between them.

This fragile and unhealthy mental balance is upset with the introduction of movie star Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold) into their lives. Claire is desperate to conceive a child and visits the brothers in hope of a miracle. Elliot immediately begins their usual game, bedding the promiscuous Claire before turning her over to Beverly. But things go awry when Beverly falls in love with Claire. Suddenly Elliot is no longer the most important person in Beverly’s life, a fact that he takes with a stiff upper lip that hides the pain beneath his calm exterior. But it’s Beverly who cracks first. Unprepared to cope with the intense feelings that come with a first love, he becomes jealous and paranoid, conditions that are only worsened as he begins experimenting with prescription drugs to help him deal with his confusion.

Dead Ringers will go down as Cronenberg’s masterpiece. It makes the psychological horror that Beverly and Elliot experience a tangible dread that can be seen on the faces of the twins. This dread infuses the whole movie, from the psychosexual subtext of Elliot’s need to share women with Beverly to the God-like pomp and circumstance with which the twins go about their medical work. When Cronenberg finds an appropriate way to work in his graphic obsession with “body horror,” the dread spreads to the viewer who squirms in horror and disgust.

Even more impressive than the uncompromising tone that Cronenberg achieves is the work of Irons in the film. He creates two distinct personalities and mannerisms for Beverly and Elliot, never once creating confusion for the viewer as to which character is which. Even better, both performances are amazing. Beverly is instantly likable with his shy exterior and sweet nature. Elliot is unnerving, a charismatic figure who is barely able to hide the disgust and contempt with which he views most people. But Irons gives Beverly just enough hidden strength and Elliot a lurking vulnerability to make both characters come to life as fully formed people. It’s this verisimilitude with the way Beverly and Elliot are written and performed that makes it that much more tragic when their all-consuming need for the other leads to their inevitable destruction.

Dead Ringers eventually reveals itself to have the grimmest of intentions, so it’s not a film for the wishy-washy. But for the more iron-willed viewer, it’s a rewarding film that finds a great director and actor working at their collective peak.

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