Director Jon Avnet and co-writer Eric Nazarian helm the new IFC Films production, Three Christs, showcasing a star-studded cast including Richard Gere, Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins, Bradley Whitford, Charlotte Hope, and Julliana Margulies. Adapted from Dr. Milton Rokeach’s published psychiatric study, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti (1964), Avnet’s film examines the lives and impact of three patients who believe they are Jesus Christ. The effect of mental illness is not contained to the personal spheres of these three men’s minds, but extends outwardly, both positively and negatively influencing the lives of friends, family, and mentors. Thus, the film is often uncomfortable, and even difficult, to watch, but the heart and soul at the center of the story makes the commitment worth it.
The film’s early stages of development were quite extensive, as Avnet consulted with renowned psychoanalyst Dr. Aaron Stern for nearly four years to create an accurate script and story treatment. Avnet committed many hours to observing rather extreme cases of schizophrenia at the National Institute of Health in Washington, D.C., working to gain a familiarity with every aspect of these individuals being portrayed in the film. As the central trio of cast members entered the fold (Dinklage, Goggins, and Whitford), they had to become just as in tune with these mental illnesses as the writers and directors. Dinklage acts in the role of Joseph Cassel, a British man who comes from a tragic background of abuse, taking on the personality of a cultured, well-spoken Frenchman, claiming to be Jesus Christ. He usually appears as rather civilized and sophisticated, but displays violent, defensive eruptions of emotion when pushed too far. Goggins portrays Leon Gabor, who also hails from a calamitous family background, that of an abusive, religiously fanatic mother. Gabor is by far the most aggressive and contentious of the three individuals. Finally, Bradley Whitford plays Clyde Benson, the most withdrawn, reserved, and quiet of the so-called “Three Christs.” Distressingly, his wife died years earlier during an attempted abortion. The heartbreaking backstories of each individual, and the harrowing nature of their current state of personal health, is sure to reach the viewer on an intimate, gut-wrenching level. The performances from Dinklage, Goggins, and Whitford are rich with authenticity, wrought with palpable passion, and filled with resonant moments of emotional intensity, balanced by subtle instances of quiet reflection.
The character of Dr. Aaron Stern (Richard Gere), who is based on Dr. Milton Rokeach, advocates for a more personal, human approach to the treatment of these psychiatric patients. Rather than electroshock therapy and other potentially harmful methods, Stern places a heavy emphasis on developing honest, intentional relationships with the patients. This means taking a lot of time to simply listen and make a proactive effort to understand the mindsets of these troubled men. Stern was known to become directly involved in the delusions of these mentally ill individuals, playing along with their fantasies with the intention of perceiving their psychological outlooks more clearly. Sometimes, this also meant crossing professional boundaries and going against the direct orders of superiors. This raises many interesting questions over the course of the film. Why should the price be so high for truly reaching someone? Why have these aggressive treatment practices been the norm for so long, and why are mental institutions so reluctant to try anything progressive, such as the routes advocated by Stern? Why should his procedures, while unconventional, be seen as so radical, compared to the more invasive advances of shock therapy and lobotomy? These questions are asked in a raw, exposed, challenging fashion, which is necessary for their impact.
Considering now the extremely tense, uneasy atmosphere created by the film, production designer Stephanie Carol and director of photography Denis Lenoir should be given their due praise. The toned-down color palette and the bare, sterile blankness of the psychiatric facility puts the viewer on edge. The volatility of any given moment is tangible, and the claustrophobia bears down on the audience. The construction of the film’s visual vocabulary is handled with careful attention to detail and displays an intentional aim to affect the audience.
While the film thrives with a focus on Dr. Stern’s interactions with the three patients, it unfortunately cannot crack the code when dealing with Stern’s life outside of the hospital. His wife, Ruth (Julliana Margulies), is painted as an odd figure within the story. It is implied that she struggles with alcoholism, and she also projects jealousy as her husband works on the case with a beautiful young assistant, Becky (Charlotte Hope). The entire side plot of Dr. Stern’s relationship with Becky, and his wife’s reaction, feels forced and out of balance with the rest of the story. Ruth herself was an assistant to Stern years earlier, which led to their falling in love and eventual marriage. Ruth fears that her husband will leave her by the wayside for Becky. This plot point had very little effect on the overall themes and messages of the film, which were depicted much more efficiently when the spotlight was on Dr. Stern and the “Three Christs.”
As Stern continues to connect on a deeper level with Cassel, Gabor, and Benson he learns more about himself as well. As a non-religious man, taking on a case with three men who believe they are Jesus is a particularly complicated situation. To see Stern grapple with this challenge was quite fascinating. His heart was stirred on many occasions by the strong wills and fortitude of these men. This is not to say that he became religious himself, but he did come to accept the finality of the circumstances, and the reality that these men might never be “cured.” To quote the words of the real-life figure, Dr. Milton Rokeach, “While I had failed to cure the Three Christs of their God-like delusions, they had succeeded in curing me of mine – of my God-like delusion that I could cure them.” This statement shows a great deal of humility and honesty, and certainly exemplifies the arc of his personality and overall outlook on this very human issue.
Even with an occasional lack of concentration on the fundamental aspects and ideas of the story, Three Christs ultimately does a fine job in its meditation on the detriments of mental illness, and the juxtaposing positive power of humanity that shines through the dark. While it is certainly not a relaxing, easy-going film, it is indeed one that will open the eyes and minds of receptive audience members. Mature audience members on the market for a moving, thought-provoking movie may yet find something to appreciate in Three Christs.
In theaters and on VOD January 10th, 2019.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
*This review was originally published by Elements of Madness on January 7, 2020, at https://elementsofmadness.com/2020/01/07/three-christs/.