“Dead Ringers” Review


Dead Ringers (1988)

 “Am I really that different from Beverly?” – Elliot

“You really are…” – Claire

David Cronenberg’s 1988 feature “Dead Ringers” is the director’s “trademark” movie starring Jeremy Irons, and loosely based on a real-life story of identical twin brothers working as gynaecologists in New York. The movie closely follows Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons), who share their lives so closely that they not only divide their professional tasks among themselves, but also date the same women. However, their extreme closeness and obsessive working trends, as well as the appearance of a certain woman (Geneviève Bujold), soon results in their well thought-out life patters spinning out of control. The film’s story is fascinating and Cronenberg-style components are well presented, but what makes this movie irresistible is Irons’s brilliant performance.

From the very first scenes, Cronenberg immerses us into the world of Elliot and Beverly, and their twinness. The two brothers are portrayed as quite distinguished ones, known for their radical methods. They are odd, a bit aloof to the outside world, with their own eccentricities, but capable of ingenuity and originality, such as coming up with a new invention used in gynaecological surgery. Though both twins are known for their brilliant scholarly research, it is actually sensitive and emotionally insecure Beverly who often does all the hard and “dirty” work, such as writing academic papers, performing complex demonstrative surgeries and running a private clinic, while Elliot, who prefers the “glamour” of life, takes care of a “fun” side of things, such as pursuing women, attending business dinners and making speeches.

Now, the lives of identical twins have been fascinating people for centuries, and I suppose it will be easy for me to write this review having a fraternal twin myself. From claims of extraordinary intuition to telepathy, twins and their interaction with themselves and the outside world are often topics of speculation. Often sharing an extremely close mental and emotional bond, which they may find virtually impossible to replicate with anyone else on earth, there have been real-life instances of twins sliding down into an obsessive-compulsive mode of a no-outsiders-world, which any marriage could only envy, as well as fierce competition with each other, depending on the circumstances, see Brigette & Paula Powers, Lisbeth & Angelique Raeven or the extreme case of June & Jennifer Gibbons (the latter is the case where the twins were so close that one had to die so another can actually live a full life). Given these examples, some of the mad synchronisations of Mantle twins in the movie are not all that unbelievable. In “Dead Ringers”, Cronenberg explores the too-familiar issues of how similar twins could really be, and what they would really be prepared to sacrifice for one another.

Cronenberg is the master of presenting “uncomfortable” on screen, and “Dead Ringers” is no exception. The topic itself is “uncomfortable”: the strangeness of the twins’ lives, their weirdly-set gynaecological practice where one twin can begin a woman’s examination, while another twin may end it. Every woman’s nightmare is there, and it is on that basis, perhaps, that Robert DeNiro refused the leading role (not to mention all the required conversations in the movie about women’s periods and sexual intercourse). Strange deformations are also Cronenberg’s speciality: in the movie, Claire has three uterus openings, and there is a dream sequence where Beverly pictures his brother being physically connected to him by a strange-looking human cord. This is not all: there are also bondage sex, ritual-like operations, and all other unsettling and juicy things not for faint-hearted.

Gently touching on the twins’ childhood and their early achievements in surgery, “Dead Ringers” soon turns into the real problem facing the Mantle twins: Claire Niveau, played by Geneviève Bujold. This woman “contributes a confusing element to the Mantle brothers’ saga”, as Elliot puts it. In the movie, Claire becomes a third person in an already established “twin-pact”, and the drama here is obvious. First taken on a date by Elliot, Claire soon gets intimate with Beverly, not even realising the substitution, and when she does find out about the twins, another drama is created: Beverly is seemingly in love with Claire, and Elliot, full of self-interest and with his wounded ego, feels that he was taken advantage of and wants his share of “fun”. At this point comes one of the major problems of “Dead Ringers”: the lack of clear direction. The movie does not know where to settle at exactly: the Elliot-Claire-Beverly drama, or Elliot-Beverly’s extraordinary closeness and its consequences. Cronenberg eventually chooses the latter, but wasting some time in between. At the end, the Mantle brothers’ destructive relationship proves too much: they both try to “cover” for each other, but their fall into an abyss is just too great. At one point, usually insecure Beverly cries: “there is nothing wrong with the instruments – it is the woman’s body which is all wrong”, signalling to his brother that his mind is not functioning properly. However, nearer the end, it is actually the usually composed Elliot who “disintegrates” completely.

However, despite this lack of clear agenda and the odd pacing (and sometimes irrelevant scenes), this picture is Cronenberg through-and-through, and this means there are cleverly-devised dialogue sequences, attention to detail in every scene, and engaging and gripping subject matter. The film’s ending is dramatic and satisfying: Elliot and Beverly’s drug addiction is at its worst, and their slide into madness is at its deepest.

Throughout the movie it is totally fascinating to see the twins interacting with each other. Their bond is very close and they share all of their life experiences, e.g. at one point one twin says to another: “You didn’t have any experience, until I had it too”, and another also says “I trust you to make us look good”. The movie uses a “split- screen” technique when the twins should in one frame, but it is Jeremy Irons’ convincing performance as twins which is above all praise. The twins look and sometimes dress totally alike, and yet, most of the time, we can tell straightaway whether we see Elliot (Elly) or Beverly (Bev). This is due to the outstanding performance by Irons who employs slightly different demeanour while portraying each of the twin. The performances require real skill, but Irons is certainly the man for the job, and doing this job with brilliance, since he has this uncanny sense of presence and authority which makes Elliot so vivid, and that sense of compassion and care for the underdog, which makes Beverly human and alive. Jeremy Irons’s Elliot is confident to the point of being openly frivolous and cynical, while Irons’s Beverly is more serious and seems to have some kind of moral restraint, at least outwardly. Geneviève Bujold as Claire Niveau, the twins’ love interest, is good and creates an interesting personality.

The year 1987-1988 was the year of “brotherly love” in Hollywood, as not only the comedy “Twins” (1988) premiered and had its share of success, but also more critically-acclaimed “Rain Man” (1988), a story of two “unlikely” brothers, won an Academy Award in the Best Picture category. “Dead Ringers” was first titled “Gemini”, then “Twins”, and then eventually “Dead Ringers”, meaning that the movie had had its fair share of fantastical makeover. However, few people actually know that, as with “Rain Man”, it is actually loosely based on a real-life story. The original inspiration for “Dead Ringers” actually came from a 1976 article published in Esquire about identical twin brothers, Stewart and Cyril Marcus, working as gynaecologists in New York City. The article is all about the twins’ peculiarities and eccentricities, the sliding of their professional standards, and their tragic and mysterious deaths in the apartment complex, which strongly suggests the involvement of drugs. “Dead Ringers” was based on the novel “Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, but it is the Marcus brothers’ extraordinary lives which gave an idea for it.

 “Dead Ringers” could either be totally misunderstood or completely loved. It is a real treat for Cronenberg lovers who will indulge in the movie’s unflinching portrayal of strange diseases of bodies and minds, and people’s dualities. Its interesting premise of a twins’ life: its joy and its price, sometimes echoes the situations of any real-life twins, but under the surface, the film is so much more. Though having substantial “plot” problems and being too long, this brave, moving, psychologically enticing and sometimes disturbing film ends up being strangely philosophical and melancholic. Other bonuses are the film’s nearly flawless technical presentation, and Jeremy Irons’ “must-see” performances. 7/10

For my other Cronenberg films reviews, see “A History of Violence” (2005), “Eastern Promises” (2007) & “A Dangerous Method” (2011).


9 Responses to “Dead Ringers” Review

  1. Jay says:

    I feel like I watched this when I couldn’t really appreciate it, and it might be worth a rewatch despite its flaws. Nice review.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Yes, I think there are things to admire here. Irons’s performance is memorable, and Cronenberg always delivers something deliciously macabre, but I was mainly attracted to the concept behind the movie: two identical brothers who are professionally successful, and their descent into madness. Would be nice to hear your views if you do decide to re-watch it.

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  5. John Charet says:

    Great post 🙂 I love Dead Ringers, that would probably be my number 4 favorite David Cronenberg film of all-time. Yeah, I have a blog entry on him on my site too 🙂 Aside from the direction, it is hard to talk about Dead Ringers without mentioning Jeremy Irons in not one, but two brilliant performances. And this was before the days of CGI and stuff. Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Thank you! If I had to consider performances and ideas this will be a straight 10/10 film for me, but unfortunately I do not think this film incorporated the character of Bujold than well and wanted to do too many things at once. On a Cronenberg’s own scale though, it is still one of his very best.
      I also cannot help by notice how in time Cronenberg lets his genius reins fall. For example, I had such high hopes for A Dangerous Method because the topic there is close to my heart, and my disappointment really was very great.

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