Friday 19 April 2019

Movie Review: Dead Ringers (1988)

A psychological drama with some gory elements, Dead Ringers flirts with unsettling topics related to anatomy, gynecology and identical twins behaving badly, but fades precipitously in the second half.

In Toronto, identical twin brothers Elliot and Bev Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons) grew up sharing everything. Now successful gynecologists specializing in fertility treatments, they jointly run a clinic and live together in a sleek flat. Elliot is confident and brash; Bev is more introverted. The brothers are not beyond surreptitiously interchanging identities and sharing women. When Elliot starts seeing actress and clinic patient Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold), he offers Bev the opportunity to attend some of the dates. Claire is none the wiser that she is having sex with two different men.

Claire has unusual gynecological anatomy which Bev finds fascinating. Gradually Bev and Claire start to fall in love, creating a wedge in the close brotherly relationship. Claire also introduces Bev to drugs, and he is soon addicted to uppers and downers. Claire starts to suspect Bev is keeping some truths from her, and when secrets are revealed both brothers have to deal with grim consequences.

The first half of Dead Ringers sets up nicely. With Jeremy Irons in sparkling form acting opposite himself and director/co-writer David Cronenberg gradually unspooling a story of twins effectively sharing one psyche, the film appears pregnant with possibilities. With only a slight adjustment in hairstyle to differentiate the brothers, many scenes sparkle with initial identity doubt. Combined with an unhealthy obsession with women's reproductive systems and the instruments used in gynecological examinations and surgeries, Dead Ringers appears destined to soar.

Unfortunately, Cronenberg's cinematic vision stalls, withers and then just slumps in the second half. Claire is sidelined and essentially the film degenerates into a slow one-actor two-character descent into self-destruction and depression. Irons is never less than terrific charting the two brothers being slowly crushed as the world emotionally and physically closes in on them. But his talents are not enough, and Cronenberg runs out of ideas and into a series of discrete dead ends.

A sojourn to the gallery of an instrument-making artist is an excuse for some imaginative tools and surgery gore, Elliot's latest companion Cary (Heidi von Palleske) sleepwalks in and out of a few scenes, and the drugs occupy ever increasing screen space. None of the haphazard plot elements amount to much as the brothers' personal and professional lives unravel in unison and along a dreary linear path.

Within the narrative void and pretty visuals plenty of interpretations are possible, including the layered contradictions of immature men being simultaneously fascinated, perplexed and manipulative of the women who provide them with life. But Dead Ringers strips down too far, the fate of the brothers predictably conjoined and inexorably turning dark, just as surely as the energy seeps out of a film that starts smart but stumbles well before the end.

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