Dead Ringers Review (Film, 1988)

Dead Ringers Review (Film, 1988)

David Cronenberg somehow finds a way to turn any film into a body horror film. It doesn't matter what the actual plot is, or the genre, or the overall tone of the film. At some point, there will be a shift to incredibly visceral horror, if only for a moment, to comment on the characters' relationships with themselves, their bodies, and their sense of humanity.

Dead Ringers is not really a horror film. It's a dark psychological drama that descends into utter chaos in its final few moments. Even that's not a particularly fair assessment. The chaos is always there--the characters just hold it together for a really long time. 

 Elli and Bev. Or is it Bev and Elli? No, really, I can't keep track just based on photos.

Elli and Bev. Or is it Bev and Elli? No, really, I can't keep track just based on photos.

Of all things to base a film off of, Dead Ringers is about a pair of identical twin gynecologists known for the innovations in medical technology. Elliott, the older twin, is the face of the company. He's incredible suave, charming, and calculating in his ever interaction. Beverly, the younger twin, is the brains of the company. He's the skilled doctor and innovator who just wants the best for his patients. Elli convinces Bev to sleep with a patient, a film star named Claire with a rare mutation to her reproductive system, only after he's already slept with her. The twins share everything, including their identities. They get away with it because no one can tell them apart. No one, that is, until Claire, who demands transparency if any relationship is going to happen. 

There's a lot to unpack here. The gynecological focus pops up again and again to create that disturbing Cronenberg separation from the physical and emotional conditions of humanity. The interesting wrinkle is how the twins respond to the same stimuli. Elli wants physical contact with no emotional component (even in treating patients, he is a cruel and blunt force in medicine), while Bev cares far too much about the emotional and psychological state of everyone around him at the expense of his own well-being. They've clearly only survived as long as they have because they rely on each other to appear as functional adults in society.

Claire starts off as an object of desire. She is the trophy that Elli wants Bev to hoist up to feel good about himself. It's intentionally awkward and Claire, as a character, makes that clear every step of the way. Once she suspects something is up, she keeps Bev in check. I almost want to say the least believable element of a film that goes all over the place is how two grown adult men somehow think they can trade off roles in a growing romantic relationship without their partner realizing their behavior is not identical.

 Claire is not allowed to be a victim or even particularly sympathetic by the screenplay. Her medical diagnosis is treated as an invitation, not a source of genuine concern. Thank goodness for great actors making everything out of nothing.

Claire is not allowed to be a victim or even particularly sympathetic by the screenplay. Her medical diagnosis is treated as an invitation, not a source of genuine concern. Thank goodness for great actors making everything out of nothing.

There's tension created here, but it's not what's intended. We're watching the literal victimization of a woman targeted because of her fame and infertility. She's treated as a curiosity and her condition is weaponized against her throughout much of the film. If I had the energy or interest, I could do a very detailed analysis of how Dead Ringers is straight up a horror film about toxic masculinity left unchecked due to academic excellence; I don't have the energy or the interest. It just winds up being too depressing and too real the more I think about it. Just be aware that, intended or not, it's a major element of watching the film 30 years later.

Dead Ringers does have some really wonderful elements. The acting is extraordinary. Jeremy Irons crafts two very different characters out of the identical twins, often acting against himself in scenes about nothing and everything. He manages to have great chemistry with a scene partner who literally can't be on set with him.

Geneviève Bujold's Claire is a fascinating character in spite of the flaws in the screenplay. Bujold's Claire is clearly in control of her life. There's a level of self-awareness that is so often lacking in quite a few of Cronenberg's other female "leads" of the 80s. As memorable as his female characters are, they could often be replaced by a prop and have the same effect. A sexy lamp could be admired for its beauty and destroyed with a lot less effort than a woman. This isn't a criticism of the acting, but the writing (Debbie Harry is wonderful in Videodrome, but she's literally there to be desired and murdered). Bujold refuses to give up an inch of her character's power even when faced with utterly unfair and cruel scenarios, somehow managing to make a horny movie star more compelling than codependent identical twin junkies who built a career off of studying but not understanding women.

 The design of  Dead Ringers  is just so dynamic. The scrubs look more like religious garments than surgical clothes and it's not a coincidence.

The design of Dead Ringers is just so dynamic. The scrubs look more like religious garments than surgical clothes and it's not a coincidence.

The technical elements of Dead Ringers are predictably great. Denise Cronenberg's costumes are a subtle insight into the mental state of the characters. The level of attention paid to distinguishing the similar wardrobes of the two twins is quite remarkable. You always know who the character is supposed to be even if you can't tell who it actually is. The final sequence, in particular, is just the right combination of unhinged and sophisticated to sell the absurdity of the ending.

The production design is just as strong. Carol Spier (Production Designer), James McAteer (Art Director), and Elinor Rose Galbraith (Set Designer) craft a modern nightmare of function and modern art in all moments of the film. The shared home of the twins is as clinical and uninviting as their high tech gynecological clinic. These spaces are filled with secret passages and lookout points more in tune with gothic horror than hip young bachelors or trendy doctors. As they begin to lose their grip on reality, every space they enter begins to feel more lived in and human, with cherished possessions, then clutter, than literal garbage filling every inch of the set. The production design becomes its own character in the film, a uniting force of recurring locations with subtle variances that help progress the plot in a clear way.

Dead Ringers
Starring Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold, Heidi von Palleske

Dead Ringers is strange even by Cronenberg's standards. Scene by scene, it can feel like an entirely different film. There are, simultaneously, dramas, character studies, thrillers, and horror films happening during the two hour run time. None of them get enough focus to be a fulfilling exploration of that plot or that character, but the overall film is overwhelming in its excess and attempt to capture them all. A more limited approach would make for a stronger film, but that stronger film would be nowhere near as fascinating as the ever-shifting stakes, tone, and style of Dead Ringers. It's a film to be studied and grappled with. 

Dead Ringers is currently streaming on FilmStruck, Kanopy, and Shudder.

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