Although I proudly consider myself a huge fan of David Cronenberg's films, I sometimes get the notion that I'm not exactly ... brainy enough to get all the themes and subtext that he's tossing around. Oh sure, I can tell you that The Fly is not just an amazingly tragic horror movie, but also a stunningly effective metaphor about how the human body degrades under the influence of age and/or disease. (Then again, an intelligent 12-year-old could also figure that message out quite easily.)
Whether or not I always fully "get" what Mr. Cronenberg is saying in his movies is kind of beside the point; the fact that any filmmaker is trying to elevate the horror genre through challenging and literate methods ... well, that's something worth admiring. So while I enjoyed the hell out of movies like Naked Lunch, Videodrome, and eXistenZ -- I'll be the first to admit that much of the subtextual stuff just boggles my brain. Boggles in a good way, of course.
Jeremy Irons, in easily two of the very best performances of his very excellent career, plays Elliott and Beverly Mantle, identical twins down to the smallest hair on their heads. And back when I used to try and force my friends into seeing movies more enlightening than, say, Friday the 13th Part 5: A New Beginning, I would describe Dead Ringers like so:
"It's about identical twin gynecologists who share sex partners with each other, and their unseemly manipulation of women ultimately leads to drug addiction, psychosis, and the creation of the world's creeeeepiest surgical instruments."
(The few friends who fell for this ploy and rented Dead Ringers generally popped up two days later with a "WTF??" look on their faces.)
Basically, though, that is what Dead Ringers is about ... and a whole lot more. It's about the fear of separation (be it emotional or physical) and the way in which men are often horrified of women. (Watch one character's reaction to the simple word "period" and you'll know what I mean.) Dead Ringers contends that knowing something "from the inside out" is not nearly the same thing as "understanding it completely," that co-dependence can be a truly dangerous thing, and that two halves do not always equal a whole.
Dead Ringers is a sterile and somewhat cold movie, and one that benefits greatly from Peter Suschitzky's gorgeous cinematography and Carol Spier's fascinating production design. A feast for the eyeballs, basically, is what it is -- which, along with the movie's numerous thematic undercurrents, brilliant performances, and tragic twists, makes Dead Ringers a perfect candidate for repeat viewings.
Utilizing some of the very earliest technology of this sort, Cronenberg is able to deliver Jeremy Irons in both roles onscreen at the same time. Oh sure, it's a stand-in when Ben and Elliott need to hug each other or something like that, but when it comes to the numerous scenes in which Bev & Elly converse with one another ... wow. You just won't be able to spot the seams, and after about 12 minutes of the movie have gone by, you'll just stop trying.
And if you think the technological merits of Dead Ringers are something pretty impressive, just wait until you get a chance to focus on the work of Mr. Jeremy Irons. The actor creates two distinct personalities with only the most subtle changes in facial expression. Only two or three scenes go by before you can easily spot the differences between Beverly and Elliott -- it's all right there in Irons' face. (Late in the film, Cronenberg ups the ante just a bit by intentionally confusing the audience here and there. As the brothers' combined fate is slowly sealed, they become a bit more indistinguishable!)
No worthwhile review of Dead Ringers would be complete without at least five pounds of praise for actress Geneviève Bujold. The French-Canadian performer has shown generous flashes of brilliance throughout her underrated career, but her work in this film is just staggeringly good. You think it's tough for a actor to play two identical twins at the same time? Try playing the woman who's being used and abused by the both of 'em ... and doesn't even know it yet! Ms. Bujold runs the gamut here: from scared & vulnerable to shocked & furious to warm & loving -- and pretty much everywhere in between. Impressive enough that the actress even took on such a dark and bizarre assignment, but her performance is the absolute heart of this movie.
Dead Ringers is a phenomenal piece of filmmaking, easily one of Cronenberg's very best works -- and this is a filmmaker who rarely (if ever) makes a BAD movie, so please do feel free to rank Dead Ringers right next to The Fly, Videodrome, and The Dead Zone. But fair warning: This is not really a horror film; forced to categorize Dead Ringers into a sub-genre, I'd call it a "psychological medical thriller / character(s) study / tragedy." But who even needs to "genrify" every unique and offbeat movie that comes down the pike? Dead Ringers defies simple categorization, and that's a great thing for a film to do. All you have to know, going in, is that it's unlike anything you've seen before -- and it's a film that you'll have a hard time forgetting.
Video: Warner Home Video affords Dead Ringers an all-new Widescreen (1.85:1) Anamorphic transfer and while it's certainly not a flawless reformat, the film still looks pretty darn solid. I do know that previous DVD releases of Dead Ringers have been met with lukewarm reception, and I expect that there will also be complaints about this transfer as well. Darker scenes, in particular, suffer from a little grain here and there, while flecks & specks from the source material are still noticeable here. Research indicates that Dead Ringers was originally shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which may help to explain why this widescreen transfer is not as sterling as it could be. (I've been told I'm way off-base with this supposition, but it was just a theory...)
Audio: Choose between Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0. An early score by composer Howard Shore really finds a groove in the 5.1 track, but the movie is almost all dialogue, so you can get away with the 2.0 and still have a good time.
Previously released as the the Criterion Collection's 21st "spine," Dead Ringers now belongs to the Warner Bros. vault, which means that the hardcore Cronenberg fans might want to hold onto that now out of print DVD. Aside from one small exception, none of the Criterion features have been carried over to this release. But there's at least one piece of good news for those fans...
Lead actor(s) Jeremy Irons contributes an all-new solo audio commentary to this release, and it's precisely the sort of studious and informative track that you'd expect from a guy like Jeremy Irons. The actor discusses all sorts of production minutiae, from the difficulties inherent in playing a pair of identical twins (be they emotional or technical difficulties) to the costume & production design and several stops in between. One fair warning, though: Mr. Irons has a voice that can best be described as "sonorous," which means you might not want to enjoy his commentary while you're lying down on the couch. That this commentary put me to sleep one night is not a criticism; it's just that Irons has such a mellow and relaxing voice!
There's also a 7-minute Behind the Scenes Featurette, which I believe is the only extra to be found on this DVD and the Criterion release. This brief glimpse at the film comes from 1988 and houses a fair share of interview segments and production peeks.
One all-new piece of supplemental material is the collection of Cast & Crew Interviews: Jeremy Irons, David Cronenberg, producer Marc Boyman, and co-writer Norman Snider share their thoughts about the project. Seemingly produced as promotional pieces for the film's original release, the interview segments seem right at home alongside the Behind the Scenes featurette, and it makes for a nice piece of archival material for the Cronenberg faithful. Watched in one "Play All" block, the interview segments run approximately 17 minutes.
Also included is the original theatrical trailer for Dead Ringers, several cast & crew biographies, and a rather silly Dead Ringers Psychological Profiler that asks you to fill out a questionnaire before applying to be a gynecologist. Weird.
I know plenty of folks who have no patience whatsoever for this particular movie, but I say Dead Ringers is a bona-fide masterpiece from a filmmaker who's already created a solid handful of masterpieces. It's not a fun or particularly upbeat film, but it does grab you by the collar and sucks you right into the screen. If you're in the mood for something stark, sobering, and more than a little fascinating, I'd Highly Recommend you give Dead Ringers a shot -- especially if you saw it years ago and didn't really dig it.