It’s unfortunate that the film itself isn’t as piercing and inventive as the performers inside of it.
After the film sat on the shelf for nearly three whole years, IFC Films is dropping Jon Avnet’s Three Christs into the January dumping grounds. Its premise—a doctor studies three schizophrenics who each think they’re Jesus Christ—seems like dark comedy fodder, given the cast and its long status in limbo. But this is a dry, melodramatic take on the material that undercuts its otherwise impressive performances.
Based on the book The Three Christs of Ypsilanti written by Milton Rokeach, the film tells the true story of Dr. Alan Stone (Richard Gere as a Rokeach stand-in), a psychologist trying to develop a more empathetic approach to treating schizophrenia than the electroshock therapy commonly used at the time. He gathers three patients who all think themselves the lord and savior Jesus Christ (Bradley Whitford, Peter Dinklage and Walton Goggins) into an experimental study hoping to help the men confront and surpass their delusions.
But he’s up against a medical establishment that thinks his theories are fairy tales and state hospital funding that doesn’t allow for a methodology as intimate and time-consuming as his new tactics. Avnet and co-writer Eric Nazarian stack the odds against Stone, both from the structure of the hospital itself to largely unnecessary subplots involving his wife (Julianna Margulies) and his young assistant (Charlotte Hope). It’s as if the pure drama of the therapy sessions didn’t seem Hollywood enough for the filmmakers, so they wanted a distracting love triangle on top an already crowded pile of medical bureaucratic minutiae.
Avnet’s storytelling style here is both patient and a little too perfunctory, with the film’s pacing feeling like a telefilm in the worst ways. He and Nazarian never seem to know how to properly weigh all the various conflicts on display, not giving enough berth to Stone’s rivalry with a supervising doctor played by Kevin Pollak. It’s the interpersonal conflict that most embodies the central themes of the story, but it comes and goes as needed for effect, taking a back seat at times for seemingly no reason at all.
It’s a shame that the script is so shoddy and the visual storytelling is so bland, because it otherwise houses three truly stirring performances at the film’s center. Whitford feels a bit miscast, despite doing fine enough work, but it’s Dinklage and Goggins’ interactions with Gere that hold the film together. Dinklage possesses such vulnerability, and its diametric opposition to Goggins’ towering, at times horrifying turn, form the extreme poles at either of end of the public’s perception of their illness.
Gere is stellar as this charming and infinitely patient practitioner trying to learn to listen to the pain between the neological rhetoric dismissed as nonsense, when every other caregiver in his sphere only has the time to hook these people up to electricity and hope for the best. It’s unfortunate that the film itself isn’t as piercing and inventive as the performers inside of it, but it’s reassuring that such talent can still shine even when encased in otherwise milquetoast surroundings.