Sunday, June 24, 2012

Off Script: Dead Ringers

Film: Dead Ringers
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I would imagine that pulling off a convincing double performance is incredibly difficult. A good believable single performance doesn’t always happen, so attempting that with two different characters must be extremely challenging. When it comes to great twin performances, to my mind, the trick is making sure that the viewers know which twin is active at any given time. This, more than anything, is the brilliance of what Jeremy Irons does in Dead Ringers. For the bulk of the film, it is possible to tell which of our two identical twin pseudo-protagonists is which. Irons pulls this off with a minimum of cosmetic gimcrackery and virtually all of it with intelligent use of expression and demeanor.

Irons plays both Elliot and Beverly Mantle, a pair of twin gynecologists. Identical to all outward appearance, the two are radically different in personality and temperament. Elliot is outgoing and a bit smarmy. He is the face of their posh fertility clinic while Beverly tends to spend more time working on his research. The two are honored while still in college thanks to the creation of a new surgical instrument of their design. They appear to be destined for greatness, and after college open up their private practice.

In addition to sharing an apartment and a business, Elliot and Beverly share, well, everything. This includes sexual conquests. The trouble starts with the appearance of Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold), a French-Canadian actress in town for a miniseries. She pays a visit to the Mantle’s clinic to discover why she’s having trouble conceiving. As it turns out, she’s unable to have children, but this becomes secondary to everything else. Elliot is taken with her and performs his usual smarmy charm. What happens next is the whole point of the relationship. After having sexy time with the actress, Elliot essentially passes her over to Beverly. This, we learn, is their typical method of operating.

In this case, though, Beverly falls hard for Claire and becomes deeply infatuated with her, even forgiving her raging prescription abuse problem. When she discovers that they are twins and realizes that there is an explanation for why her new lover seems to be two different personalities, she naturally gets upset. This sends Beverly into a spiraling depression modified greatly by increased and terrifying drug use. Beverly’s world starts to unravel further even when he and Claire patch things over. When she leaves for a film role, Beverly stops being able to function. To him, all of his patients become malformed, and he creates a series of new surgical tools for operating on what he calls “mutant women,” much like what he considers Claire with her particular medical condition.

Eventually, Elliot is forced to step in, and in attempting to wean his brother off of drug addiction becomes a raging addict himself. His goal, he says, is to become “synchronized” with Beverly so that the two will again be thinking and feeling the same way.

Dead Ringers is loaded with David Cronenberg’s typical body horror ideas, in this case turned outward. The body horrors here are the horrors that Beverly faces in his patients as well as the internal world created by, for, and with his brother. There is a sense throughout the film that rather than being separate people, Elliot and Beverly are instead two aspects of the same overarching personality, two incomplete and partially overlapping halves. They speak of themselves as conjoined twins, and it’s evident that they are. If I can get a bit pedantic for a moment, the film appears to be claiming that they are conjoined at the soul.

Everything in this film rises and falls on the performance of Jeremy Irons. This is, to my mind, one of the great double performances in film history. It’s always evident which of the two brothers he is playing at a given time until the very end when the two have both become so physically, emotionally, and psychically united and degraded that there is no difference between them. It’s a masterful performance in both cases—he’s noteworthy both as Beverly and Elliot; performing as both is nothing short of the pinnacle of the craft.

This is also a visually stunning film. Beverly’s tools for operating on mutant women, for instance, are shocking and disturbing, but they are supposed to be. They look not like surgical instruments, but medieval instruments of torture, useful only for gutting and rending flesh in the most twisted and painful way possible. Similarly, the operating room scenes become something like a theater of the perverse. Everything is red, including notably the surgical costumes. Initially, it’s striking. As the film progresses and Beverly sinks deeper and deeper into madness, the operating theater becomes a dark and perverted church celebrating a dark and terrible mass.

It should go without saying at this point that I really like this film. I’m predisposed to like Cronenberg anyway, and when the visual style and overall creepiness of the film pays off this well, I like it a lot more. This is not something to watch with the squeamish or prudish. There’s plenty of kinky sex (although almost no nudity) including some rather remarkable bondage scenes involving surgical tubing. Once the sex ends for the most part, we stay in the realm of the psychosexual—much of what happens has deeply sexual overtones without being especially about sex.

Anyway, the film is worth seeing if only for Irons. But really, it’s worth it for the whole creepy enjoyment.

Why to watch Dead Ringers: Jeremy Irons’s amazing double performance.
Why not to watch: It’s depressing to know that Irons is this good but has performed in mostly shit for the last decade.


  1. "Why not to watch: It’s depressing to know that Irons is this good but has performed in mostly shit for the last decade." haha,I was wondering this too!!

    1. It's true, though. This is a guy who won an Oscar for Reversal of Fortune and then does Eragon and Pink Panther 2.

      Maybe he's got money issues. I don't know and won't speculate seriously, but some actors--him, Ben Kingsley, a few others--seem to accept any script they are handed.

  2. I saw this way back when it came to HBO/Cinemax in the 80s and I remember not really being able to follow what the hell was going on. It was my first experience with a Cronenberg film and unlike you I was not able to distinguish the two brothers after a little while.

    I remember when Irons was giving his acceptance speech for Reversal of Fortune he thanked Cronenberg - essentialy acknowleging that he had really won for his performances in Dead Ringers.

    By the way, he had a good supporting role in 2011's Margin Call. He didn't get a nomination in the crowded Supporting Actor category, but I felt he deserved one. (So did Ben Kingsley for Hugo).

  3. Irons is talented--he's just become one of those guys who seems to really like getting a paycheck.