Three Christs centers its story on The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, a case study in which which psychiatrist Milton Rokeach tried to manipulate three men who believed themselves to be Christ into recognizing their delusions. Rokeach’s study was in 1964; in the years that followed, multiple graduate students came forth to describe Rokeach’s unethical methodology through which he created scenarios for his patients that triggered their mental disabilities. It was Rokeach’s way of trying to prove his hypothesis that exposure to someone with similar identity issues would cure another individual of theirs. Eventually, Rokeach said:, “It did cure me of my godlike delusion that I could manipulate them out of their beliefs.”
Three Christs twists this amoral real-life study into a heartwarming fictional adaptation about Dr. Alan Stone (Richard Gere), who uses trailblazing techniques and empathy to understand his patients. It twists Rokeach’s somewhat penitent quote into “Although I could not cure them of their delusions, they cured me of mine.”
It’s as though someone made a film about how the Stanford Prison Experiment was really just a heartfelt drama about a professor who learns to overcome his control issues.
Worse yet, the three Christs here are played by a trio of actors whose chops are mostly wasted. Walton Goggins, Bradley Whitford and Peter Dinklage do their best with the material but can’t save a ship that never really sets sail. The presence of any one of these three actors is reason enough to watch any film, so having all three stuck in a room together playing relatively subdued personalities is a shame.
There are moments of comedy and drama saved by their talents, but everything is shot about as flat as any topical made-for-TV hourlong. Gere is playing his usual handsome, articulate American who just wants to do the right thing. Promotional materials promise a comedy, but it has a level about equivalent to Lifetime.
The denouement clearly wishes to be a statement about the role of empathy in therapeutic environments, contrasting with the use of shock treatment and other brutal methods. It’s hard to disagree with the sentiments, but using a real-world example of manipulative psychotherapy in a dishonest way to make a point against mistreatment of the mentally ill is deeply questionable.
Three Christs was originally screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017. It is now available on VOD via IFC films. The 2 1/2-year delay is somewhat inexplicable … or was until viewing the film. It’s a dull waste of talent built on a foundation of deliberate historical misrepresentation. How frustrating.