“Twin gynecologists take full advantage of the fact that nobody can tell them apart, until their relationship begins to deteriorate over a woman.” — IMDb
Dead Ringers, an absolute masterpiece directed by David Cronenberg (Rabid, Videodrome, The Fly), was loosely based on the real life story of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, identical twin gynecologists that worked in New York City in the 1970s (and, similarly, died together as well). Cronenberg may have taken some liberties with some of their more intimate details but the general story — twin doctors who seem to have taken the same path towards a mental collapse — remains intact, making the movie all the more interesting for it.
The film follows identical twin brothers Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both played superbly by Jeremy Irons), prominent gynecologists in Toronto who share a bit more than just career aspirations. When the equilibrium they’ve created between them is disturbed, they both begin spiraling into their own version of mental imbalance.
** SPOILERS! **
First and foremost, Jeremy Irons’ performance in this film cannot be understated. I have always been impressed by him — I can’t think of a movie that I haven’t enjoyed him in — but this one takes the cake. Even putting aside his ability to portray the range of emotions and situations throughout the movie — the depression, the anxiety, the paranoia, the prescription drug abuse, the toxic and hopeless love, the fear of separation — he does it as TWO SEPARATE PEOPLE. The twins are similar but so, so different… actually able to be physically differentiated in some scenes despite them, obviously, being just one person, but in others you lose track, intentionally, of which is which as the lines become more and more blurred.
The juxtaposition of two people who have chosen a career for their lives so centered around principles — doctors, sworn to protect and save lives and uphold the trust of their patients — being so morally defective (more Elliot than Beverly, for sure) is a theme worth exploring. Watching how easily Elliot starts sexual relationships with his (or their) patients and then passes them off, unknowingly, to his brother, is disturbing to say the least, and shows a missing link in the implied feminism in helping women take care and control of their bodies and yet deceiving them so maliciously.
Ultimately, this is technically a body horror movie, as is Cronenberg’s specialty, but it’s so cerebral in its approach that you easily forget that it fits into the horror category at all, at least how it is so commonly presented. It explores themes of motherhood, or the lack thereof, and what reproduction and child rearing represents in our society and in our minds (Claire’s hopeless mention of “when I’m dead I’ll just be dead” when she is lamenting her inability to get pregnant due to her trifurcated cervix, which thankfully is a medical oddity that exists only in Cronenberg’s imagination). It explores the toxicity of co-dependency, of watching two people who are brilliant in their own regard slowly self-destruct because they are unable to exist in a healthy capacity, without the ties that bind them becoming more and more restricting.
Cronenberg is both subtle and yet pervasive with the aspects of body horror that he incorporates. There’s really only one graphic scene — Bev’s dream about being connected at the stomach to Elliot — but the surrounding obsession with “mutant women” and Beverly’s paranoia surrounding their bodies being all wrong and not fitting his specifications for his almost medieval tools keeps the tension high.
True to Cronenberg’s fashion, we couldn’t dive into the topic of unhealthy codependency without getting to the point where you’re almost physically uncomfortable while watching. Elliot having the identical twin escorts come to the apartment and requesting that one of them call him Beverly, or both of them dancing with Elliot’s female companion as he strokes her arm draped around Bev’s back… yikes. But when Elliot brings Bev back for his secret detox and has him re-tell the story of the first Siamese twins and their deaths — one just hours after the other, dying from fright as a result of seeing his dead brother — was a heartbreaking indication of just how unquestioningly wrapped up in each other they are.
And the ending… whew. I won’t completely spoil it but it managed to be heart-wrenching and shocking while also completely expected. In no way a happy ending but somehow a perfect one.
Rating: 8.5/10 | Director: David Cronenberg | Writer: David Cronenberg, Norman Snider | Music: Howard Shore | Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky | Starring: Jeremy Irons, Geneviève Bujold, Heidi von Palleske