After the box office success of The Fly in 1986, David Cronenberg’s options were wide open to command the kind of production budget that had eluded him up to that point in his career. The obvious move would have been to double-down on another effects-heavy, crowd-pleasing spectacle, and yet the project that he chose to pursue was one that had been lingering in his mind for years—a nuanced study of identity and co-dependence based on the shocking and tragic real-life story of twin gynecologists. In exploring the relationship between two outwardly successful but ethically questionable doctors, Cronenberg found fertile territory for his ongoing fascination with body dysmorphia, medical experimentation and sexual ambiguity.

Co-written with Norman Snider, Dead Ringers revolves around the entangled relationship between identical twin brothers Beverly and Elliot Mantle, both played with exquisite subtlety by Jeremy Irons. The Mantle brothers live together in a strangely antiseptic penthouse that resembles the waiting room of their shared gynecology practice, and their professional collaboration and cohabitation lends a tone of claustrophobia to their dynamic. Neither character seems complete without the other, and they are seldom farther than a room away from one another as they work together, eat together and, eventually, date the same television actress, Claire (Geneviève Bujold).

The blood and gore of Cronenberg’s earlier work seeps into the story, but Dead Ringers signaled a shift toward more interior manifestations of infection and mutation. Beverly and Elliot seem to be parasites of one another, neither able to live or function without the other as host, as if occupying the same soul. They seem to have experienced the fragmentation of their personalities at birth, each dealt a different shard of a shared individuality which at once binds them and sets them apart from everyone else. Their blood-red surgical gowns suggest this visceral bond, contrasted with the grey and clinical outside world of chilly medical offices and brutalist slabs of architecture. Shot in Cronenberg’s native Toronto, the film toggles this interior/exterior dynamic throughout.

Cronenberg’s interest clearly turned inward with this film, finding fascination and horror in the unseen regions of bodies, hearts and minds. Beverly puts it this way: “I’ve often thought that there should be beauty contests of the insides of bodies.” In fact, it’s a genetic mutation that brings Claire into the doctors’ orbit, with a “trifurcated cervix” that makes her unable to conceive. Beverly swoons and falls in love, but neither brother seems to understand human emotion outside of their own symbiotic connection. His obsession with the actress wreaks havoc on the brothers’ identities. Claire, unaware of the twin brother, is passed back and forth, becoming a body that conjoins them.

As intriguing as the story is, none of it would work without a masterful performance in the lead roles, and Irons inhabits both brilliantly. Within moments of appearing onscreen, he manages to telegraph the differences between the brothers through his posture, his mannerisms, even the gleam in his eyes. Elliot is the charismatic and social one, striding and speaking with confidence, while Beverly is tentative and introverted, seeking escape in drugs and lust. Irons’ performance is differentiated with such nuance that it’s clear who is who even when one of the brothers is pretending to be the other. Using split-screen technology, the two characters share the screen at times, a technological trick which establishes and sustains the illusion without drawing attention to itself.

Dead Ringers continued David Cronenberg’s fruitful decade of adapting the work of others. (As twisted as the film ended up being, the source material—Bari Wood’s novel “Twins”—is significantly more depraved both sexually and psychologically.) The director described the act of creative collaboration in typically Cronenbergian terms: “If you mix your blood with other people’s, then you will create something that you wouldn’t have done on your own, but is enough of you that it’s exciting and feels like you. It’s kind of like making children.” Or making monsters. As empathetic as the Mantle brothers are with each other, they lack the ability to make meaningful connections with anyone else, or to recognize the social and emotional boundaries of ordinary people. For them, a bifurcated identity contains everything they need. They complete each other in work, love, addiction and even death. Near the end, one of the brothers places a desperate phone call to Claire, who asks, “Who is it?” The question goes unanswered; either name would only be half the story.

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