A film that’s probably far more horrifying for the women in the audience than the males, Dead Ringers tells the tragic tale of twin gynecologists. Both are played by Jeremy Irons, who does such a good job at giving each twin a distinct personality. Even without saying anything, you can almost always tell who is who simply because of the nuances he gives them. The way director David Cronenberg uses special effects to sometimes have Irons on-screen in two places at once is seamless.
Elliot and Beverly (Irons) are very smart, successful gynecologists. That path seemingly was theirs to take since childhood; the first scene of the film sees them asking a female neighbor if she’ll have sex with them just because. They’re fascinated with anatomy, and they’re innovators in their field as a result. They also wind up having affairs with many of their patients, often switching place and without the patient being able to tell the difference. There’s a sort of dark comedy running through Dead Ringers. Pitch black, and too subdued to really call the film a “dark comedy.” It’s more of a horrifying drama.
One of the targets for this switcheroo winds up being a “famous” actress — which, considering the film takes place in Toronto, means barely anyone would recognize her — Claire (Geneviève Bujold). She’s too smart for their games, and Beverly winds up falling in love during this process. How does this play out? It would be spoiling to tell. It’s also not the central focus of the film. That’s the relationship and dependency between the two twins.
The twins act like a single organism. What one does, the other must do, also. The female, Claire, comes in the way of that. So do drugs. Seeing these elements attempt to separate an entity that must remain whole is a fascinating character study. The madness that takes place over Dead Ringers‘ final half is scary. Despite this, you can’t bring yourself to stop watching. You have to see where this journey will take these characters, and whether or not they’ll come out of it unscathed. You’ve probably already figured out whether or not that’s the case, but the film has enough depth to it to make it worth seeing more than once — or the single time if you’ve already come to the correct conclusion.
Dead Ringers becomes more like a nightmare as it progresses. Watching it is rarely an enjoyable experience, unless you’re strictly appreciating it from a technical perspective. That unsettling and unpleasant feeling works in its advantage. You can understand exactly how these characters are feeling because of that. And because it’s David Cronenberg, you know that you’re gonna get some terrifying imagery.
Is it more subdued than many of his earlier horror films? Absolutely. We don’t get a lot of gore, only a couple of gross-out scenes, and much more straight drama … that becomes scary because of the situations surrounding it. Addiction storylines aren’t uncommon, but this one — involving well-off doctors who begin to “separate” into unique entities — feels unique because of the circumstances leading up to it.
Twins make the perfect subject matter for a film like this one. Questions of individual identity — especially when the swapping of places occurs — are bound to be raised. But it’s more than that. A dream sequence has Beverly attempting to cut a literal bond between the two using one of the deranged tools that he has invented for his practice. Dead Ringers can be taken in a number of ways, and it’s for that reason that it deserves multiple watches, if you can get through it without puking.
It would all fall apart if Jeremy Irons wasn’t near-perfect in the leading roles. He does an impressive job giving each twin so many unique features — body language and facial expression alone allow us to determine which twin is which before he even opens his mouth, at which point a subtle change in the way he speaks is present — that brainstorming must have taken a great deal of time. They do get blurred together as the addictions take more control of their lives, but that’s intentional.
This is one of the best films David Cronenberg has done. By toning it down to a more human scale, focusing more on the characters than the spectacle, and still giving the audience a boatload of things to think about once it ends, he has crafted a wonderful movie. That is, if you can sit through it and not find it too off-putting to even think about it. Even if that is the case, and you told him that, he’d probably smile. That is a perfectly acceptable way to look at a film like Dead Ringers.
Dead Ringers is a fantastic film. What’s it about? Twin gynecologists who swap places with one another in order to have sex with their patients, all while becoming addicted to any number of drugs and inventing tools for their practice that would be considered torture if they were ever used. If that doesn’t turn you off the film, you’ll probably appreciate it. It has things to say, it’s unsettling, creepy, and genuinely creepy, and there’s an undercurrent of black humor swimming underneath. It’s a tremendous film and if you think you can handle it, I definitely recommend it.