Director David Cronenberg had the abil­i­ty to write his own tick­et in Hollywood after the crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial suc­cess of his The Fly remake.  It’s a sign of his com­mit­ment to his own muse that he passed up the oppor­tu­ni­ty to make eas­ier, lucra­tive com­mer­cial fare to pur­sue off­beat projects that took him away from tra­di­tion­al hor­ror deadr-poslike Naked Lunch and M. ButterflyDead Ringers was his first step away from being a pure­ly gen­re direc­tor, strip­ping away the spe­cial effects and shock val­ue of his hor­ror work to com­mu­ni­cate his ideas and obses­sions through pure­ly dra­mat­ic means.

Dead Ringers is a loose adap­ta­tion of Twins, a Bari Wood/Jack Geasland nov­el inspired by a real life sto­ry about a pair of twin broth­ers whose lives end­ed in addic­tion and tragedy.  The film’s twin pro­tag­o­nists Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons) are bril­liant doc­tors who run a suc­cess­ful gyne­col­o­gy prac­tice.  However, they use their iden­ti­cal looks to fool the rest of the world, switch­ing iden­ti­ties for pub­lic occa­sions and even to share lovers.

Elliott is the dom­i­nant one who rev­els in social game-play­ing while Beverly is the shy­er, more frag­ile one of the duo.  Their abil­i­ty to hold the world at arm’s length ends when they become involved with an actress, Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold).  Beverly pulls away from his broth­er to be with her but can’t han­dle life out­side their twin-bub­ble.  He also devel­ops a drug addic­tion that allows his dark side to take over, lead­ing them both in a trag­ic down­ward spi­ral.

Dead Ringers has almost none of the grue­some ele­ments that, bar­ring Fast Company, dom­i­nat­ed Cronenberg’s pri­or films: there’s bare­ly any blood and just one night­mare sequence that has a tra­di­tion­al­ly Cronenbergian ele­ment of body hor­ror.  However, the results feel just as unnerv­ing as his hor­ror films.  The sto­ry­line touch­es on taboo ele­ments in con­ven­tion­al enter­tain­ment — sado­masochism, onscreen depic­tion of gyne­col­o­gy, etc. — yet does so in a sub­tle, char­ac­ter-dri­ven style that enhances their dis­turbing qual­i­ty.

You don’t need to see graph­ic depic­tions of the afore­men­tioned con­tent to feel its impact because the act­ing is top-notch.  Irons is tremen­dous in a dual per­for­mance, cre­at­ing two gen­uine­ly dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters.  He shows his gift for icy charm with Elliot while Beverly allows him to give vent to an extreme emo­tion­al­ism — and he com­mits ful­ly to the dark places the plot takes the­se char­ac­ters.  Bujold adds not only beau­ty but intel­li­gence,  com­plex­i­ty and sharp wit to what could have been a mere “wom­an who sep­a­rates two men” char­ac­ter.

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The oth­er rea­son that Dead Ringers is so unnerv­ing is because of Cronenberg’s con­fi­dent, uncom­pro­mis­ing han­dling of the mate­ri­al.  Even with­out make­up effects, he cre­ates a qui­et­ly unset­tling atmos­phere from the jump, using ele­gant and ster­ile set­tings to off­set the emotional/psychological decay the audi­ence wit­ness­es.  With the help of art direc­tor Carol Spier and soon-to-be-reg­u­lar cin­e­matog­ra­pher Peter Suschitzky, Cronenberg cre­ates a her­met­ic visu­al style that suits the twins’ ide­al­ized lifestyle — and said land­scape decays in real time with them.  On a side note, the com­put­er-con­trolled cam­era used to cre­ate the illu­sion of Irons act­ing alongside him­self is flaw­less.

Once you get down to the third act, Dead Ringers goes to all the dis­turbing places you’d expect a Cronenberg film to go — but those places are expressed in psy­cho­log­i­cal terms rather than vis­cer­al ones.  It’s a tes­ta­ment to the tal­ents of Cronenberg and his col­lab­o­ra­tors, par­tic­u­lar­ly Irons, that those final moments are both heart­break­ing and har­row­ing with­out any extreme con­tent.  Howard Shore’s musi­cal score son­i­cal­ly com­mu­ni­cates the dev­as­ta­tion we wit­ness but, as with all oth­er ele­ments of the film, it does so in a sub­tle yet elo­quent way.

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In short, Dead Ringers was a gut­sy move for Cronenberg to make at that junc­ture of his career but the risk was worth­while as the results are bril­liant.  The results prove you don’t have to make a hor­ror movie to haunt the audi­ence.