Every now and then on the Criticwire Network an older film gets singled out for attention. This is the Criticwire Classic of the Week.
David Cronenberg was unstoppable in the 1980s, making one indelible horror classic after another, and one could spend a day arguing which film represents the peak of his most fruitful decade. One could easily make an argument for the crossover hit “The Fly,” or for the prescient reality-bender “Videodrome,” which still has the best Cronenberg line and mission statement in “Long live the new flesh.” But his decade-ending masterpiece “Dead Ringers” might be the most chilling film in Cronenberg’s filmography, as well as his most tragic and haunting.
Jeremy Irons always specialized in playing both aggressively chilly forces of malevolence (“Reversal of Fortune”) and haunted, wounded souls (“Moonlighting”), but “Dead Ringers” gives him a chance to play both in twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle, yielding the best work of his career. Within a few seconds of seeing either version of Irons on screen, it’s clear which one we’re looking at because of their carriage, their gaze, their position to their surroundings. Even when one is pretending to be the other, the sensitive Beverly shrinks where the assertive Elliot expands. This is illustrated in possibly the best sequence of Cronenberg’s career, a dance set to The Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” that showcases both the brothers’ differences (dominant vs. submissive, predator vs. prey) and the mixture of emotional connection and abuse between the two.
Their symbiotic relationship is upset when they both get involved with an actress (Genevieve Bujold, astounding here) and Beverly falls in love. Neither of them can fully understand their relationship, but they understand it better than the rest of humanity: where Elliot sees himself above human interactions, Beverly is downright uncomfortable with them, and they both lack the empathy and understanding that would make them humane doctors. Cronenberg introduces his signature body horror gradually, but that makes it even more effective, turning every shot of a body, even a normal one, into something alien, distant, and chilling. And while one could never call Cronenberg a warm director, exactly, his characters here are his most complex, his most human, precisely because they struggle to connect to humanity, coming close only when they’ve lost control.
More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
Jared Mobarak, JaredMobarak.com
The last line of David Cronenberg‘s “Dead Ringers” is on the nose and yet still disturbingly surreal. Jeremy Irons (playing twin gynecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle) phones his lover Claire (Geneviève Bujold) only to hear the telling reply, “Who is this?” While we too find ourselves uncertain which is on the line, his inability to answer shows the disturbing truth that it may be both or neither. Read more.
More thoughts from the web:
Jordan Cronk, Slant Magazine
In one grave, inevitable climatic gesture, Dead Ringers simultaneously brought director David Cronenberg’s initial phase to a close and his body-horror predilections to a logical plateau. Following a series of increasingly gruesome films pitting natural order against the outgrowths of the mind and flesh alike, Dead Ringers deconstructed at an uncomfortably intimate level the psychosexual intrigue between a pair of fraternal gynecologists and a genetically unique actress as they plunge into a moral gray area of drug abuse and professional malpractice. Sure, not the stuff of traditional horror, but in the hands of Cronenberg, one of the most macabre, haunting films of the 1980s. Read more.
Nigel Floyd, Time Out London
Cronenberg’s emotionally devastating study of the perverse relationship between identical twin gynaecologists, Beverly and Elliot Mantle, is an intense psychological drama which confronts his familiar preoccupations – fear of physical and mental disintegration, mortality, the power struggle between the sexes – without the paradoxical protection of visceral disgust. Instead, the abstract, expressionist imagery synthesises the physical and the mental. Read more.
Janet Maslin, The New York Times
Who, then, will be drawn to this spectacle? Anyone with a taste for the macabre wit, the weird poignancy and the shifting notions of identity that lend ”Dead Ringers” such fascination. And anyone who cares to see Jeremy Irons’s seamless performance, a schizophrenic marvel, in the two title roles. Mr. Cronenberg has shaped a startling tale of physical and psychic disintegration, pivoting on the twins’ hopeless interdependence and playing havoc with the viewer’s grip on reality. It’s a mesmerizing achievement, as well as a terrifically unnerving one. Read more.
Scott Tobias, The A.V. Club
As he would prove again two years later as Claus Von Bülow in Reversal Of Fortune, Jeremy Irons drops one-liners with such aristocratic nonchalance that they snap like dry twigs. It’s as if he’s almost too bored to get the words out, yet malevolence compels them to escape his lips anyway…The Mantles are dangerous because they lack empathy and compassion, and they have trouble comprehending emotion, especially when they’re experiencing it themselves; their rotten bedside manner comes to define them, and has an overwhelming toxicity that drags them under, too.