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 like Naked Lunch and M. Butterfly. Dead 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.
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.
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.