June 11, 2023

Twins pretending to be one another isn’t a foreign concept in cinema history. From Lindsay Lohan‘s lighthearted film The Parent Trap to Stanley Kubrick‘s acclaimed thriller The Shining, identical siblings have long been portrayed as inseparable for all the good and wrong reasons. However, it is unusual to see twins undergoing an identity crisis because their differences are seemingly imperceptible. David Cronenberg‘s 1988 classic, Dead Ringers, based on real-life brothers Cyril and Stewart Marcus has a way of overstepping the boundaries when it comes to a sibling relationship to the point that the audience becomes increasingly disturbed, but unable to unlock their eyes from the screen. This is a testament to Jeremy Irons‘ outstanding performance as the main duo and the gory surgical undertakings that keep the movie’s story in the bizarre territory.


In Dead Ringers, Bev (short for Beverly) and Ellie (short for Elliot) are twins who grew up wearing the same clothes, liking the same girls, and sharing the same interests in anatomy. It all boils down to their ease in being the same, even if this means that they will never be independent of one another. Ellie is the charming spokesperson, while Bev is the timid science aficionado. This means that for their reputation as gynecologists to remain soaring, they must work together to make their strengths even more revered in the public eye. Ellie takes charge whenever awards and important meetings take place, while Bev has a more reserved career dedicated to his patients at the clinic.

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Image via 20th Century Fox

Although they attract attention and praise for their groundbreaking fertility procedures, they are never recognized for their individuality. This fools the siblings into thinking that because no one deems them as two brilliant minds, they also can’t perceive themselves that way. This is clear when they receive a prize and only Ellie goes up on stage to represent the duo. Later on, he shares the award with Bev and says that he wished his little brother had gone to the ceremony too. The sibling responds with “I was there”, which shows that he also believes that he and his brother are one and the same.

Their partnership runs smoothly until an actress named Claire Niveau (played by Genevieve Bujold) comes down for a consult and attracts the attention of both men. Although it isn’t abnormal for them to share the same woman, things become more complicated once Bev becomes a little too emotionally attached. This begins to shatter the tight-knit bond that the twins have because Bev tries as much as possible to have Claire all to himself and omits his brother’s existence hoping to finally have an exclusive romantic relationship. Once the actress finds out that she had been sleeping with both of them, she is adamant about only wanting to be involved with Bev. From that moment onwards, Cronenberg details the downfall of the duo’s connection. They were once inseparable, but when separated they are headed to a messy path of self-destruction.

Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers
Image via 20th Century Fox

Jeremy Irons is flawless throughout the entirety of this thriller, but it is during the second act that his performance reaches its climax. He makes the audience go mad when portraying Bev as a drug addict and Ellie as the responsible elder sibling trying to manage the situation but suffering in the meantime. The way the characters are deemed by everyone as too alike to be differentiated also makes the viewers question their sanity on whether Bev is Ellie or Ellie is Bev. This ability to navigate two characters with opposing personalities, but who are easily mistaken on the outside is what keeps the film increasingly exhilarating.

The visuals also accompany the twisted plot to a tea with the inclusion of terrifying red scrubs, sharply-crafted surgical tools, and the visceral conjoined twin procedure. If the storyline wasn’t disturbing enough in the first half, it becomes even more mind-bending in the last portion. With a few moments of foreshadowing laid out through Bev’s fever dream and the twins’ odd conversation in the apartment, the screenplay is successful in making the audience aware of what is coming up next without interfering with the viewer experience. Although everyone knows that the story is headed to a tragic ending, it is impossible to not keep attentive to all the clues.

Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers
Image via 20th Century Fox

Howard Shore, responsible for the gloomy orchestral score, also has his fair share in elevating the film. The heavy cellos help to drag on the suffering that Bev experiences as he goes from sweating and craving another pill to getting out of control when the drugs become essential for him to “function”. The music also accompanies the desperation that Ellie goes through trying to fix his brother’s mistakes, while being drawn to drugs and alcohol so that the siblings return to being alike in every sense.

The problematic back-and-forth dynamic between these brothers becomes the catalyst of making this a worthwhile but uneasy watch. Although Bev and Ellie aren’t conjoined twins, their relationship prior to Claire coming into the picture functioned similarly to that of Siamese siblings who are forced to coexist from birth. Since the duo spent their whole lives up until that moment doing everything together, their separation becomes lethal. Like a surgery that separates conjoined twins can result in death, so does their attempt to function as individuals. The last few minutes of Dead Ringers only symbolize this inability of coping with the challenges of authenticity.

Overall, Cronenberg’s body horror serves as a gruesome but compelling portrayal of the hardships of embracing one’s identity without it being overshadowed by someone else. With a lead actor that delivers a magnificent performance as the twins, a well-crafted screenplay that is consistent from start to finish, the inclusion of horrifying visual elements, and a fitting score, this thriller deserves its recognition as a classic. It isn’t made for everyone to admire it, because its provocative nature makes it an uncomfortable viewing experience. Yet, it is needless to say that every component of the film works together with precision, resulting in a coherent and disturbing piece of art.

Rating: B+

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