June 28, 2007

Movies for Grown-Ups: Dead Ringers

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

Dead Ringers (1988)
Written by David Cronenberg and Norman Snider, from the original book by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland
Directed by David Cronenberg

"Dense psychological thriller." The term's been so overused by Hollywood marketing executives at this point to become almost meaningless; I myself, for example, can't help but to think of some hack job starring Sandra Bullock or Jennifer Lopez or one of the other usual suspects, something about a serial killer or perhaps that's a psychic or I know it's the taut cat-and-mouse game between the serial killer and the psychic, that's it. But when a dense psychological thriller works, it very much has the possibility of being one of the creepiest, most disturbing experiences most of us have in life; and that's because when such a movie is done well, it presents all the terror of a horror movie, but even more horrific because it all happens in the minds of the people involved. And that's really the ultimate terror for a lot of us humans -- not of getting hacked up by some freak in a hockey mask, but literally losing our minds and destroying ourselves without even realizing that we're doing so.

Dead Ringers, by David Cronenberg

And man, I'm telling you, if you want to see pretty much the perfect example of what I'm talking about, check out 1988's Dead Ringers when you get the chance, a movie which by its end had filled me with the kind of deep and profound fright and disgust that I literally hadn't experienced since as a teenager, a teenager, with barely a drop a blood spilled the entire time, and certainly no hapless naked American tourists suspended upside down in the middle of an eastern-European hostel-cum-torture-chamber. Which is ironic, of course, because the film happens to be by David Cronenberg, who at that point in his career was known mostly for his extreme gross-out flicks; to be specific, the quadruple punch of high-minded splatter films Rabid, The Brood, Scanners and Videodrome. Since then, of course, we all know by now that he's gone on to make some even grosser films than those (The Fly and Crash being two of the more well-known ones), but has also become a favorite of critics and intellectuals because of such movies as Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, and his award-winning latest, A History of Violence. At the time, though, Dead Ringers was a big gamble for Cronenberg; his first attempt at making a movie that was simply good on its own, and not because of its Fangoria-style special effects.

Dead Ringers, by David Cronenberg

The movie tells the story of identical twins, both played here by Jeremy Irons in one of the first uses ever of computer-controlled split-screen technology; Beverly and Elliot Mantle are their names, brilliant and award-winning gynecologists of all things, who have dedicated their lives to turning as many infertile women as possible into pregnant ones. Ah, but as an early scene featuring the twins as children shows, these are no ordinary brilliant twin gynecologists; the Mantles are in fact much more intelligent than most other humans on the planet, confused and a little repulsed by the idea of sex, and with an obsessive need to keep a scientific order over all aspects of their lives, in order for their lives to actually make sense to them. (And by the way, film students, you'd do good to study this early scene, for an example of what your professors call the "show, don't tell" theory of exposition; just look at all the things we've learned about the twins' personalities by the end of it, using just the tiniest amount of dialogue.)

Dead Ringers, by David Cronenberg

How these traits manifest themselves in adulthood, then, is the first really intriguing thing about the movie, in that the twins take what seem like opposite approaches to life but which really are two sides of the same coin: how Elliot becomes the smooth-talking sociopath, the public face of the duo who wears the more expensive suits and accepts all the awards, and who beds a series of supermodels and actresses simply because he can; while Beverly becomes the introverted one, the one mostly responsible for the research half of the twins' work, whose hair is always falling in front of his eyes and who is so shy that he can barely even speak to the opposite sex. And why this is so intriguing, I think, is that it immediately subverts the usual formula of the twin psychological thriller; that is, neither can rightly be called the "evil twin" of the two nor the "good" one, but rather simply two very different manifestations of the same screwed-up childhood. And in fact, almost the entire creative team behind the movie goes on at length about this in the DVD extras; of how they were attracted to the project in the first place because of it avoiding the usual "good twin/bad twin" approach most such movies take.

Dead Ringers, by David Cronenberg

So, the Mantles manage to eke out a decent life for themselves through such an arrangement, albeit an undeniably creepy one; they share an apartment, share a private practice, even take turns having sex with the same women without telling them, in that Elliot sees this as the only chance Beverly is going to have to experience a little intimacy, and Beverly is too cow-towed to voice his displeasure over the entire arrangement. But then their routine is suddenly disrupted -- by the soap-opera star Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold), in town to shoot a low-budget prison drama, and who starts having some "lady problems" while on location, prompting an emergency trip to the Mantles' clinic. It's there that the twins learn the astonishing thing about Niveau, that she has an extremely rare three-chambered uterus; this leads to a mutual fascination with the woman, which leads to their usual role-switching in the boudoir, but which in this case leads to Beverly actually falling in love with her, despite Elliot being the first one to know her and the main person she still sees.

Dead Ringers, by David Cronenberg

And it's this, as they say, where things all start falling apart; because the twins have relied on their deeply ingrained routines for so long now, this one very "proper" way to do things, that even the slightest deviation from it is enough for their fragile brilliant minds to go off the deep end. Take, for example, when Beverly calls Claire while on the road at yet another shoot, gets her manager, and accidentally mistakes him for her secret new lover; how this one tiny misunderstanding is enough to make his already casual prescription-drug use bloom into a full-blown addiction edging on psychosis. And this is where the second really intriguing subversion of the film takes place; because even if you're tempted at first to view Elliot as the "evil twin" because of his womanizing, domineering ways, by halfway through the film he's actually become the more caring and sympathetic of the two, with a sincere desire to help his brother overcome his addiction and a sincere anguish over the struggle not going very well; while it's the once-sympathetic Beverly who becomes the "bad twin" by the second half, the one too weak to fight the downward spiral his life is becoming, the one threatening to bring a disastrous end to both of the brothers' careers.

Dead Ringers, by David Cronenberg

Now, everything I've just mentioned occurs in maybe the first half or so of the film; and I'm not going to divulge any more of the plot, because part of what makes this movie so enjoyable is the various surprises behind the finale's twists and turns. I'll say this, though, which I don't think is giving too much away; that as things rapidly come to a head for the two, the movie also becomes more and more claustrophobic, with eventually almost all the other characters gone except the Mantles and almost all the sets no longer seen besides the now-closed clinic, where Elliot has locked in Beverly while he goes through a particularly painful withdrawal. And as anyone who's actually been through such an experience can tell you (of being locked in a small space with someone, that is, not necessarily going through drug withdrawal), the mental things that go on between the people there can sometimes be so intense to take on a life of its own; and this can not only be a horrible and violent thing, mind you, like in the case of this movie, but also beautiful and profound as well, like in the case of two lovers locking themselves in a motel room for a weekend. This is the very definition of "dense psychological thriller," after all; that most of the thrill takes place in the mind, stuff that we would normally call "made-up" if it didn't become so damn real in such closed-off surroundings.

Dead Ringers, by David Cronenberg

I'll admit it -- I already loved Cronenberg even before this, and am happy to confess that this now makes the ninth movie of his I've seen of the twelve he's made since 1979's The Brood, considered by most to be his first "mature" film. (In fact, it occurs to me that I should really do an entry soon about these various "Patron Saints of the Underground Arts" I keep referring to here, of which Cronenberg is definitely one. Oh, and I should do it in a scary British Prisoner voice too -- "Numbah One! Church of the Sub-Genius! Numbah Two! The Illuminatus Trilogy!") But even with that, Dead Ringers must now immediately skyrocket to almost the top of that list; a brilliant film, an almost perfect one, that has deeply earned the respect and ongoing interest that it's gained over the years and decades. If you ever want to creep yourself out one night -- I mean, seriously seriously creep yourself out -- this one's the one to rent.

Out of 10:
Writing: 10
Acting: 9.7
Directing: 10
Cinematography: 9.8
Overall: 9.9

Random notes:
--This film was supposed to be entitled Twins; but then at the last minute, Cronenberg's friend Ivan Reitman (who actually produced several of Cronenberg's first films) asked if he could have the name instead, for his upcoming Danny DeVito/Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy that came out later that same year.

--Also for those who don't know, this was loosely based on a true story (and how creepy is that), detailed in the book Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, which is also known as Dead Ringers just to make things even more confusing.

--And finally, how can I pass up mentioning this? Cronenberg was George Lucas' first choice to direct Return of the Jedi. Can you even imagine? "Welcome to the New Flesh, pitiful Ewoks!"

Best viewed: By yourself, in the middle of the night, while on a whole bunch of amphetimines. No, wait, I'm kidding! SERIOUSLY, DO NOT WATCH THIS FILM BY YOURSELF IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT WHILE ON AMPHETIMINES!

Next on my queue list: 1980's reality-bending Altered States, starring William Hurt at his young naked finest, which is actually one of the rare films in this essay series I've seen before (a dozen times, in fact), but have been wanting to see again since I've never gotten to see the DVD version.

Read even more about Dead Ringers: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:07 AM, June 28, 2007. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |