Twin gynaecologists, both played by Jeremy Irons, are the subject of lust and excruciating horror in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. While it too has fallen to the reboot treatment (a television series lingers on the horizon), it will be interesting to see just how that episodic basis captures the loathing between two twin brothers. Maybe it will do away with that concept entirely. Perhaps it will be so far removed from Cronenberg’s interesting, stumbling thriller that it crafts a dynamic all of its own. Only time will tell. Until then, though, we can reflect on the lasting legacy Dead Ringers has seemingly provided.
The dark horse of the Cronenberg filmography, awkwardly in-between the body horror found in The Fly and Videodrome, the gritty hyperviolence of Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, but committing to neither with equal dismissiveness. It is the attempt at reinvention that makes Dead Ringers stand out, and it is a process Cronenberg would grapple with for much of his career throughout the 1990s. Dead Ringers is a sign of that change, an inevitable need to reinvent oneself applies the question of “What next?”. Next, it seems, is a thriller charged by sex (Crash), tenuous spirals for the mental health of their characters (Spider) and a pairing with Jeremy Irons (M. Butterfly). You can watch the three films previously mentioned, and none would come close to the quality of Dead Ringers.
They are offshoots of his style. Each message in those aforementioned films is found compacted and expressed better in Dead Ringers. Such were the common themes of Cronenberg, the strange highs that protagonists would find in seedy eroticism and excruciating lows as the gore and creative science-fiction undertones seeped into the plot. Twin brothers that share the same women, first Elliot seduces them and once bored, passes them off to the quieter of the two, Beverly. Such a relationship is strange and concerning. It never takes the stage as it should, and that may be because of the tones of abandonment and pangs of erratic behaviours these two characters take part in.
To some degree, Dead Ringers is cramped and streamlined. It is a straight-shooting piece with all the eccentricities Cronenberg could possibly offer. Such a blur leaves the best and worst of his direction in full view. He is still the master of body horror and brooding personalities; he shows it well in the final climax of the movie with a satisfying and gory trip. Jealousy between Irons and Irons works superbly well. His cutting lines are delivered with venom, and the key mechanism is that these are thrown toward himself. He conveys grief and anger at the same time, separating the two into different characters. It is brilliant, and much of Dead Ringers relies on these outbursts, the conniving brothers who care for and corrupt one another.
It is rare to have such chemistry with another on-screen talent, Cronenberg must have realised this when he cast Irons in this dual role. There are even fewer actors who could have pulled this off, this battle between the corruption of love and the inhabitants of routine. Dead Ringers conveys a keen understanding of such a routine breaking down, making way for the impact and infectious effects of unplanned adventure. It is Claire (Geneviève Bujold) who strikes the match, but the fuse is short on the mind of Irons. As both of his characters spiral off in different paths like a vicious Catherine wheel, Cronenberg sits back alongside his audience and watches the fun. He is as entertained as we should be, and it is this need to engage with a viewer that elevates Cronenberg even on his duds. He is making a movie an audience would want to see, and in the case of Dead Ringers, he attempts a blend of his finest moments, but comes up a tad short.