Typical of Cronenberg’s long reign as one of the most original and consistently excellent directors around, today’s Killtoberfest entry Dead Ringers is a story no one else could have conceived, or, if they had, executed with such skill and intensity.
The film is essentially a two-hander between Jeremy Irons and Jeremy Irons, who play a pair of identical twin gynecologists. Outwardly they’re so similar that they impersonate one another handily–even trading off the women they date (most of whom they meet first as patients). Soon, however, a few key differences emerge in their personalities: Elliot (Irons) prides himself on being the (slightly) older and (slightly) taller twin, leveraging those tiny differences into being the dominant and more outgoing half of the pair, while Beverly (Irons) is more sensitive, less socially apt, more willing to submit to his brother’s whims but also the more brilliant doctor. Despite these differences, the pair is essentially in equilibrium, sharing everything, interacting with one another like two gears perfectly meshed. But when they begin to romance an emotionally unstable actress, their weird dual life comes under threat.
Irons is simply amazing in both roles, doubly impressive given that 90% of the time he’s only acting with the memory (or imagination) of his other performance. Cronenberg’s assured, patient writing and direction fully flesh out this exceedingly odd pairing, and gives us a slow-motion descent into the horrifying psychological depths of their strange connection. It’s a long, slow, tense film that only barely escapes greatness by failing to end with the sort of Cronenbergian insanity that unforgettably caps movies like Videodrome, The Brood, and The Fly. The film remains horrifying, but it’s completely internalized, in a way that reminded me of Friedkin’s Bug, which is also about a pair who accompany one another into insanity.
For all that, Dead Ringers displays many of the themes that Cronenberg explored for decades. The psychological back and forth between two medical professionals presages his A Dangerous Method, the strange, fetishistic voyeurism with which they share partners is reminiscent of Crash, as is the characters’ fascination with medicine and the human body. (Cronenberg quietly films his surgery scenes like religious rituals, underlining how the brothers both consider themselves as gods to the female body, able to fuck or manipulate or operate with impunity and total control). All of these ideas stem from the twins’ struggle to seek their own identity while fearing the loss of their bond–Beverly’s fascination with (literal) inner beauty, his brother’s pride in being the first to have the experiences they share. Although much of the film involves Beverly’s nascent addiction to drugs, what they’re really addicted to is each other–and just like with drug addiction, ultimately the only thing that matters to either is their other self, that object of destructive desire. Try as they might to kick the habit, neither twin can truly escape his brother. After all, you can’t just leave family behind.