[Review] Not even Divine Intervention can help ‘THREE CHRISTS’ from being a manipulative examination of schizophrenia

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

THREE CHRISTS

Rated R, 109 minutes.
Director: Jon Avnet
Cast: Richard Gere, Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins, Bradley Whitford, Charlotte Hope, Julianna Margulies , Kevin Pollak, James Monroe Iglehart , Stephen Root and Jane Alexander

If you put your faith in the Lord, read from the Good Book, and attend Sunday services, then you have heard the tale of Jesus’s resurrection. That took a weekend. Yet, the Jon Avnet film THREE CHRISTS, about three men who think they are the true Son of God, took nearly three years to make its appearance. Such is the fate of the festival circuit. You spend months making a movie, it has its world premiere at the famed Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, and drops silently in 2020’s January dead zone.

The drama is based on a famous psychiatric case study at Michigan’s Ypsilanti State Hospital where three mentally ill patients – each of whom believed they were Jesus Christ – were observed by social psychologist Dr. Milton Rokeach from 1959-1961. Dr. Rokeach was of the belief that empathy and understanding, not confinement or electroshock therapy, for schizophrenic patients as an alternative treatment worth exploring. Sadly, his valiant outlook of the sanctity of life is squandered in a film that takes fewer risks than his landmark study. The fault primarily lies in the writing and how the characters are broadly defined.

Now, I wasn’t expecting the second coming of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST or even KINSEY, but at least move beyond the basic eccentricities and delusions that outline patients Joseph Cassel (Peter Dinklage), Leon Gabor (Walton Goggins), and Clyde Benson (Bradley Whitford). Each actor offers something different in branding themselves to be Jesus – and are more than devoted to their portrayals – however, remain flaccid, despite one patient’s carnal desires and obsession with Becky (Charlotte Hope), the doctor’s young research assistant.

(L – R) Bradley Whitford as Clyde , Peter Dinklage as Joseph , and Walton Goggins as Leon in the drama THREE CHRISTS, an IFC Films release. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

My biggest gripe isn’t just its blandness, it’s how a talented cast and interesting subject are wasted in a story that has a more intriguing postscript. The results of the clinical study had minimal impact in the psychology community and Dr. Rokeach later apologized for his methods, which involved lies and manipulation to cure the three men.

Perhaps that is why the doctor in THREE CHRISTS is Dr. Alan Stone (Richard Gere), not Rokeach. Regardless of the name change, it would be interesting to know what compelled Avnet and co-screenwriter Eric Nazarian to tell this story in film form. I couldn’t help but see the film working better as a stage play in the scenes where Dr. Stone is conversating with Joseph, Leon, and Clyde in a big room where its only them, Becky, and a few orderlies. As it turns out, Rokeach’s novel about the Ypsilanti study has been a stage play and was the basis for two operas.

THREE CHRISTS is more take a look at this story about three mentally ill guys and how lying can be a suitable course of treatment than being insightful about the state of schizophrenia. Considering the post-war America timeframe, our delusional deities could be suffering from post-traumatic stress and inspirit themselves as the ultimate Redeemer. Again, the film never probes into the machinations of Joseph, Leon, and Clyde’s unsound minds. We offer scant details, like Joseph wanting to leave for England, or Clyde’s compulsive showering to remove his lasting bodily stench (which does not exist). The film’s primary conflict is a cursory butting of the heads with the hospital’s overseer, Dr. Orbus (Kevin Pollack), who is pro-shock therapy and is at first apprehensive to Dr. Stone and his methods. But when he sees an opportunity to take credit for part of the study, it leads to a fatal conclusion that not even Dr. Stone could have hypothesized.

The curiosity of three men believing themselves each to be Jesus is a novelty and could spur interest from those who read about THREE CHRISTS and the names in the cast and think it’s a quality ensemble. Of the notable participants, it is Walton Goggins that upstages the cast as he continues to deliver quality in the most unexpected of roles. That’s not enough to distract from the film’s story problems and Dr. Stone’s holier than thou ways. His empathy for the three men overshadows his questionable and dishonest methods to treat them. Plus, the inclusion of Stone’s wife, Ruth (Julianna Margulies), offers little introspection to his character outside of the hospital, and their little asides are unneeded diversions to the story as a whole.

THREE CHRISTS is a textbook case of the uncertainty that exists when a filmmaker tries to take a clinical subject and simplifies it to a point where profundity is lost, and we are left with a talented cast in a bland drama.

Grade: C-

THREE CHRISTS is now playing in select theaters and available on Digital on Demand.

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