Rated R BECAUSE IT'S A CRONENBERG MOVIE! Honestly, Dan Harmon used the word "Cronenberg" to establish the quintessence of sexual gore. This movie is about rape, violence, mutilation, death, drugs...the works. David Cronenberg is trying to make people as uncomfortable as possible and it's weird that it is only an R-rating considering that so much stuff happens in it. R.
DIRECTOR: David Cronenberg
I don't think that Cronenberg is for me. Before I get into it, I have to establish the print I watched of this was less than stellar. While I had access to really nice prints of this movie, I had the OG Criterion DVD of the movie. Normally, Criterion raves about having the best print of a movie, but this is early Criterion DVD. Considering that Jeremy Irons is acting across from Jeremy Irons and he's using his full Jeremy Irons voice, I really wish that I had subtitles at the time. A lot of this is on me. If you are an expert on Dead Ringers, I would like to apologize that this isn't an ideal way to watch a movie. I also split it into two sections a week apart. Yeah, I'm not the guy who is going to have the final judgment on Dead Ringers.
I don't think I like Cronenberg. One of the things that I've had an epiphany regarding this blog is the idea that some emotions are meant to be paradoxical. When I say I don't like Cronenberg, I admit that there's something really perverse that attracts me to it. We're talking about that concept in some of the Japanese films of the early '90s, how there was this attempt to introduce conflict into audience reaction. From Cronenberg's perspective, I'm reacting the exact way that he wants me to. He wants me to shy away from the grotesque and hate myself while simultaneously staring enraptured at that very same grotesquery. The thing is, people come to that moment and have to make a decision. Some of them want to treat it almost like adult films, claiming that they are above such things while still secretly enjoying it. But I actually don't really enjoy it. I acknowledge that there's something in everybody that finds beauty in what Cronenberg is doing. But ultimately, I don't really desire to see more. I remember kind of liking The Fly a million years ago, but I also remember hating Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and eXistenz. But then there's also Eastern Promises, which I really want to rewatch before I commit to how much I love that movie.
Dead Ringers almost feels like this is both Cronenberg figuring himself out and in his prime. Cronenberg, for some reason, screams out that he should be embedded in the '80s. I think a lot of that comes from the fact that he thrives with practical effects and gore. There's a scene where Bev has a nightmare about being fused to Elliot. In that moment, there's a tumor (because of course there's a tumor) that pulses. Everything about this screams '80s horror to me. It is there for the gross-out moment that matches the overall tone of the piece. It's not like these moments are completely out of context with the piece. Often, Cronenberg's visuals match the emotional truths that he weaves throughout the film. But as polished as the film is and how unhampered he appears while making it, the story seems like a bit of a mess. (This is where all of you Dead Ringers fans cite the fact that I watched it in less than stellar situations.) I'm going to try and justify my thought process as best as I can. A lot of this reads like a filmmaker throwing everything at the camera and seeing what sticks. Part of this movie is about the role of brothers and the intimacy that lies between them. Then it is also a movie about drugs and how they change a person fundamentally. Then there is a message about attempting to de-sexualize the female anatomy simply because it is in a gynecological setting. I want to pile on the role of art and genius, coupled with madness. Lies and the thin line between violence and healing is there. It's so much. It's so so much. And where it falls apart for me is the idea that Cronenberg goes in with these themes that he wants to explore without having a story to support these notions.
My real evidence? No one acts like a person in this movie. People say why they do things as if that makes the most sense in the world. But none of it is true. Bev and Elliot share this anecdote about a conjoined twin who died from grief over the loss of his sibling. It's a repeated thing. So that inspires Elliot to take the same drugs that Bev does? The movie even points it out, how insane their logic is. Claire states directly to Elliot that it is not how things work, but Elliot must follow the whims of David Cronenberg. There's almost a meta-narrative that might be more horrifying. Because Elliot is so driven by this concept of fate that Cronenberg has created for him, he is incapable of being persuaded, regardless of tactic. Elliot and Bev have to make these positively bizarre choices because Cronenberg wants to see these characters torn up by the end. Maybe that's what makes the film somehow unique. When you have one character make wonky choices, it can always be written off as the character being broken mentally. But these are two characters (whose recurring theme, I admit, is the notion of oneness) yes-anding each other, despite the fact that these choices have no place in reality.
I jump back to the '90s Japan comparison. American films are about spectacle. European films are about psychology and sociology. But Japanese films are about mood. More than actually telling a story, Cronenberg is reveling in the mood he creates throughout the piece. While watching the film, I had to stop to Google the surgical scrubs that Bev and Elliot use. I mean, we all acknowledge that these scrubs would be wildly impractical in a surgical situation. I also know that these garments would later be used in other science fiction, most notably Star Trek, if I'm not mistaken. It is just about the notion that Cronenberg revels in my discomfort and every element of the movie, whether formally grotesque or not, builds upon the notion of discomfort. I'm slightly abandoning my line of reasoning here to talk about the biproduct of this discomfort: the use of rape as a means of entertainment.
When this film starts, it really feels like the movie is about two brothers conning a woman into a rape situation. Bev and Elliot, being identical twins, have seduced a celebrity into loving them because they pretend that they are the same person. It's a gross idea to begin with, but it has a way of being told that might actually be culturally relevant. Claire discovers the twins' trick and chides the brothers. (They should be arrested and a lot more should have happened in this sequence.) But Claire still cares for Bev, to whom she initially was attracted. This is really gross, but that shared sexuality never really comes back into play again. Elliot doesn't talk about the fact that there is a biological imperative that the two brothers share a woman sexually. Nope. If anything, that plot almost doesn't come into play except to acknowledge that Claire is attracted to both brothers. (There's a weird dancing sequence with Claire and Elliot as Bev descends into madness. Again, my complaint with the movie is that people act in absolutely bizarre ways for the sake of the visuals.) What this ultimately does is use rape as an element of entertainment, not for the message. The movie doesn't really come down hard on the two brothers for keeping their sexual secrets away from Claire. If anything, it bolsters her bond with the two. I'm really striking this point hard: there's no place for this. It's abhorrent, which is why what Cronenberg makes is a bit dangerous. There's a tacit acceptance of this kind of behavior because that part turns out okay. Yeah, the two brothers die, but not because of their seduction of Claire.
I just feel like Cronenberg, whom I acknowledge is smarter than I am, tries too hard. It's a fear of storytelling and greed for imagery. The imagery is divorced from reality, so Cronenberg just uses a sledgehammer on every sequence. Nothing in the film is subtle. It's about violence and abuse. And what is the takeaway? Wouldn't it be weird if twins were more biologically connected than we think? I don't actually believe this, but there are so many themes that there ultimately is no theme. There's no message to take away shy of, "Wouldn't it be weird if...?"
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.