Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Thirty-Three

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#33 — Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988)
By the time he made Dead Ringers, David Cronenberg was already an established master of depicting the mushy, gristly fallibility of human flesh, and doing so with frightening ingenuity. He’d made heads explode in Scanners, sent James Woods digging around the fearsome cavern that opened up in his own torso in Videodrome and took Jeff Goldblum through a gruesome degeneration in The Fly. That last film can still make a claim to the greatest commercial success of Cronenberg’s career (A History of Violence made a few dollars more but that was after almost twenty years of ticket price inflation), and for the follow-up Cronenberg took his regular obsessions through the icy turnstile of his creative process, emerging with a film that unquestionably has its fair share of blood. Yet, for all the threat delivered by the mere presence of the freaky medical tools that remain one of the film’s most chillingly memorable elements, the film dwells less on physical nightmares than the horrible ways in which a person’s mind can go wrong. in Dead Ringers, Cronenberg wants to study how a psyche can shred.

Based on a 1977 horror novel written by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, the film follows a pair of identical twin brothers who have become highly successful and esteemed gynecologists. They take advantage of the difficulty others have in discerning between them by trading off some of the more tiresome responsibilities, a series of interchanges that includes sexual partners, usually cast off by the more confident Elliot to share the bed of the hesitant Beverly. Both men are played by Jeremy Irons in a masterful piece of acting. Irons doesn’t rely on actorly tricks to discern between the two characters, using an overt visual signifier or some gimmicky tic to convey to the audience which role he’s playing at any given moment. Instead, he just plays two different people, honestly and thoroughly. In a remarkably brief amount of time, discerning between the two is no more difficult than recognizing people that have long been part of a personal social circle.

Besides the dual role, Irons also face the challenge of plays men in precipitous mental decline. He manages to make the breakdown seem piercingly real instead of florid, even as it veers into the sort of extreme household carnage more typically seen in operas or ancient Greek drama. Medea herself might be tempted to avert her eyes. Cronenberg doesn’t seem particularly in shock in his construction of the characters’ joint downfall. He opts for slowly mounting dread and an almost dreamlike decay of logic and self-preservation. Some of the struggle is seen through the eyes on a washed-up actress named Claire who enters into a relationship with Beverly. As played by Geneviève Bujold, the patron saint of grounded performances, the character is an invaluable barometer of the twisting internal winds of the brothers.

Cronenberg sometimes takes an almost clinical approach to his characters travails, a distance that can feel like his own creative act of aggression. That quality is definitely present in Dead Ringers, but there’s a unique tenderness to it too. Some of it may come straight from Cronenberg, giving the film a faint tone of sympathy. The main conduit of this sense is Irons, though. His complicated portrait of the Mantle brothers may not offer absolution for their cruelties, but it does resound with aching regret. Other Cronenberg films depict greater graver consequences than Dead Ringers, but this is the film of his that manages to make the material feel like profound, moving tragedy.

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