Sorrow is one of the vibrations that prove the fact of living.
– Antoine de Saint Exupery, Wind, Sand and Stars
There is no space more sacred than the privacy inside our heads and hearts, and whom we decide to allow into that space can become one of the decisive factors in how happy (or unhappy) a life we lead. David Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS (1988) gives us a heart-wrenching portrait of that safe personal landscape irreparably torn apart as the eerily close bond between twin gynecologists (both played to shattering perfection by Jeremy Irons) crumbles.
DEAD RINGERS became the fulcrum of Cronenberg’s career, a turning point away from the body horror films he’d been celebrated for earlier in his filmography, such as VIDEODROME, SCANNERS and THE FLY, and turned the horror instead to a far deeper, more disturbing place. To be fair, this project was never planned as a kind of career pivot point; Cronenberg had been trying to finance the movie for quite a few years before it was able to get made, as many directors often do (John Landis spent 10 years trying to get AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON made, and James Cameron first expressed interest in a new film about the Titanic in 1987).
Still, when DEAD RINGERS arrived, it showcased many of the things that acute viewers had picked up on in Cronenberg’s earlier works – his skillful, carefully observed psychological study of people in a, perhaps not self-consciously downward spiral. Cronenberg’s FLY remake still works perfectly well as a monster flick, but it’s unusually potent emotional crescendo should be enough to convince anyone that this is a horror auteur who finds the real horror in the things people do to one another and to themselves than simply showcasing severed limbs, and DEAD RINGERS brings this home with a vengeance.
A writer/director wanting to explore such extreme terrain means nothing if the director in question cannot get good performances from their actors, and this is an underappreciated aspect of Cronenberg; the entire emotional undercurrent of THE FLY hinged on the trio of performances from Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis and John Getz; A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE would’ve been unthinkable without Viggo Mortensen’s blend of vulnerability and danger; DEAD RINGERS would simply have been DOA without Jeremy Irons. There are no obvious physical differences between the twin brothers he plays. The only way we realize which twin we are watching, the gregarious Eliot or the painfully introverted Beverly, rests totally on his body language, and that’s a hell of a feat.
The result is a film that simply defies all labels; DEAD RINGERS is certainly not a straightforward horror film, though it often gets thrown into that category; even branding it a psychological thriller doesn’t totally feel fulfilling. For me personally, DEAD RINGERS is, along with LEAVING LAS VEGAS, the saddest film I’ve seen, all the more surprising because the characters in either film are not ones asking for our sympathies; the womanizing twin gynecologists played by Irons both do horrendous things to the women they share, as well as to each other and, eventually, themselves.
Ditto the suicidal alcoholic and call girl in VEGAS. It is to the enormous credit of the respective actors and filmmakers involved that all these characters become three dimensional people in order for their tragic flaws to register. To put it another way, they become as human as any of us, and it is a test of our humanity how we react to the vibrations we pick up from sensing another person’s private agonies, which, too, can determine how happy or unhappy a life we lead, for who knows if that pain will be the last thing they ever feel.
A prime example is the scene where Eliot and his girlfriend slow-dance to IN THE STILL OF THE NIGHT as Beverly lies on the nearby sofa, crippled by the mistaken belief that the woman he’s fallen for has cheated on him. Eliot and his lady friend futilely try to get Beverly to join in, perhaps partly a way for Eliot to seduce his brother back to their previous womanizing ways more than simply cheer him up, but it is to no avail. It is this scene, coupled with the preceding one where a shattered Beverly reveals the imagined affair to his brother, that wrenches home the tragedy of the twins: without his girlfriend, Beverly fears he doesn’t know who he is, nor does he feel he has any identity in the bizarre fraternity with Eliot. And once Eliot becomes swept into the same whirlpool, there is no saving them.
Even for those of without an identical twin, this film registers for all of us: how do we live our lives with or without a given person, or how do we live with who we become with a certain person in our lives? By changing or refusing change, does this make us better or worse?
Such questions become even more important if the old adage that we all create God in our own image is true, because that would make us all twins.
Copyright (c) 2017 by Eric Peeper