Dead Ringers is based on a true story about identical twin gynecologist drug addicts; both played by Jeremy Irons. The film is a psychological thriller deeply concerned with obsession, sexuality and co-dependence. Cronenberg doesn’t overdo the shots that contain both Mantle brothers, but the most effective aspect of the film is also the subtlest, there are virtually no exterior shots apart from the beginning and end. So the entire film occupies a claustrophobic internal space both physically and psychologically, and these spaces tend to reflect each other as the plot develops. The twins are Elliot and Beverly, both male, Elliot the oldest and extroverted, the businessman and marketer of the two; Beverly younger and reserved, the medical genius. They share everything, including patients, including banging patients. In particular, an actress with a trifurcated uterus named Claire Niveau. Jesus Christ, you’ve gotta love Cronenberg.
Beverly becomes attached to Claire and vice versa, until she learns that she banged Elliot initially. They break up but get back together. Beverly’s love of Claire begins to separate him from Elliot and their relationship changes in small ways at first, but when Bev starts pill-popping his personality begins to degrade rapidly. His nadir results in his attempts to operate on a using “gynaecological instruments for operating on mutant women”. Elliot has his own psychological eccentricities associated with his twinship [at one point he gets twin escorts and has one of them call him Elliot and the other Beverly]. He also attempts to score a threesome with his brother and his girlfriend. When detoxing Beverly fails, Elliot decides that he needs to start taking drugs as well to get back on the same wavelength, so they can get off the drugs together. They deserve a Darwin Award for that idea.
There is no easy resolution to the myriad questions about gender, abnormal physiology and psychology, sexual deviance and relationships that are raised in this film. The resolution instead comes in the form of an abhorred pity for the Mantle brothers and a feeling of relief that such troubled souls find their rest. Meanwhile, the casual viewer is left with the need to examine his or her own predispositions about the nature of human relationship and cultural conformation. In this sense, this film owes a debt to Tod Browning’s Freaks. The references to the first set of conjoined twins is also relevant in this context, and the moral of the film, if there is one, is that deviance from the norm has disastrous consequences, even if the deviant parties are innocent in and of themselves. Or perhaps, that the heavy pressure to conform has disastrous consequences to offer another side of the same coin.
- Criterion Essay by Chris Rodley
- 30 reviews at MQRE
- Criterion Contraption review
- Psychological Determinism in Dead Ringers by Dan Shaw
- Cronenberg on Cronenberg