“Dead Ringers” (1988) & the Duality of David Cronenberg
The tagline for David Cronenberg’s 1979 film, The Brood, was “the ultimate experience of inner terror.”
Of the several aliases for his 1975 feature debut, Shivers, one was They Came from Within.
But it wasn’t until 1988’s Dead Ringers that Cronenberg began to shift his trajectory – instead of presenting grotesque externalizations of the internal, he placed himself at the forefront of internalizing the external.
The result is his coldest, most gut-clenching, and possibly best work.
Cronenberg’s early films used horror as a springboard to transmute the rules and themes that had governed the genre up to that point: he used Toronto’s bleak facades to cast a queasy sheen across his tales of hellspawn conjured by a mother’s rage; the phallic image of an apartment high-rise infested by parasites that turn the residents into drooling sex maniacs; and the use of pulsating videocassettes to foretell the sinister synthesis between humans and their electronic fun-dispensers. This wasn’t drive-in stuff, but material dense with satire, metaphor, and commentary on the human condition.
Perhaps this explains why Cronenberg’s earlier films, while considered canon today, were met with mixed-to-damning appraisals upon their initial release.
In Ringers, when gynecologist Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons) tells artist Anders Wolleck (Stephen Lack) “It’s too radical for them,” it’s as much a character moment as it is the director washing his hands of critical expectation.
Perhaps Cronenberg’s shifting focus in the arena of “body horror” is reflective of my own troubled relationship with Ringers, a film that served as the bridge between the director’s saturation point with special effects (1986’s ferocious and mournful remake of The Fly), and his subsequent, more introspective exploration of drama punctuated by the periodic body-horror twist.
I first saw Ringers during my late-teens, when I was psychologically ill-equipped to decode it. I didn’t see the personality difference between twins Beverly and Elliot (both Irons); couldn’t invest in the icy relationship they share with flighty actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold); and couldn’t wrap my head around the motives and machinations of its bleak final minutes.
I’ve watched the film several times over the years (one of those “I’ll get it someday” projects that I only devote to filmmakers I hold in high regard), and after viewing it a week from my 36th birthday, have come to terms with why it is such a masterful, important work – not just in terms of Cronenberg’s overall filmography, but as a milestone in dramatic horror.
One of the complaints leveled at the director during his tax-shelter days was that his characters were too detached from reality to be relatable. In Ringers, this is very much by design. As boys, the Mantle twins exhibit book-smarts while being naive toward sex and emotional connection; as adults, Irons manifests both sides of the character coin, with Elliot being the suave, smug, and dominant personality; while Beverly is withdrawn, shy, and painfully self-conscious. A lesser actor would over-emphasize these traits in order to explicitly discern the twins’ personalities (and probably win an Oscar for it), whereas Irons displays a level of self-restraint that borders on the masochistic. There are differences between Beverly and Elliot, but Cronenberg makes you work to catch the nuances and subtleties of the performance(s). In an elliptical manner that is as heartbreaking as it is fitting, the grown twins eventually revert to a childlike state in an attempt to come to terms with their longstanding separation anxiety.
As the film transitions into its devastating final act, girlfriend-colleague Cary (Heidi von Palleske) says to Elliot, “It’s getting harder to tell the two of you apart,” which speaks as much to the character as Cronenberg’s own evolving aesthetic. His intent doesn’t get more self-conscious than in a dream sequence where Beverly and Elliot, bound at the hip by an amniotic sac, are separated by the force of Claire’s teeth.
Yet Claire, who I found to be a sterile (pun intended) presence during previous viewings, is deliberately so: dubbed a “flake” by Elliot, but for whom Beverly falls hard, Bujold only randomly seems present (in the “cognizant awareness” sense). She has a cervical mutation and cannot conceive, is on a regiment of meds as an “occupational hazard” to her acting career, and – like Beverly and Elliot – is seeking a distinctive human connection to make her “whole” as a person. The impossibility of this for all involved makes the tragedy of the last act even more dread-filled.
When Beverly grows addicted to painkillers, Elliot presides over his detox program. Before getting trapped in a shared downward spiral (“whatever goes in his bloodstream also goes into mine”), the brothers share an incredibly poignant moment – one which lays all stakes and emotions bare – wherein Beverly recalls the fate of Chang and Eng, “the original Siamese Twins,” in a groggy, almost sing-song tone. It is only when he finishes and notices the tears glistening in Elliot’s eyes that he realizes the bridge they must both cross. It’s powerful stuff, made even more so by Irons’ distinctive performances.
Ringers also exhibits an aural evolution: composer Howard Shore – a career-long Cronenberg collaborator – conceives a blooming yet hesitant optimism in the opening-credits theme, undercut by a crimson background and macabre, pen-and-ink surgical drawings. The score often reminded me of “Pomp and Circumstance,” and seems indicative of the promise of youth that grows complicated as the weight of adult responsibility settles in. Shore is brilliant at aligning his own idiosyncratic touches with his director’s, lending to an experience that, fittingly, lands left of center. (I also like how the subtitles on Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray describe the music as alternatively “intense” and “somber,” among other adjectives.)
As corny as it sounds, I like to think the passage of time opens doors of wisdom and perspective. Contextualizing how we feel or what we think in the broader spectrum of where we come from (socially, economically, genetically) is a big theme in Dead Ringers, and I suppose it makes sense that this awareness in myself has greatly altered my perception of the film. Almost unbearably bleak, Ringers is an endurance test – just not in the way most Cronenberg faithful will expect.
Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: 4.5 out of 5
(Dead Ringers is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.)