Three Christs

Three Christs takes one of the most amazing stories in the history of psychology and muddles it by focusing on the wrong thing. If you took psych classes in college, you may remember – as I do – reading about Milton Rokeach. At Ypsilani State Hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan, he met three psychiatric patients who all believed that they were Jesus Christ. Rokeach wondered what would happen if he put them all in the same room. Would meeting two other people who shared a delusion make them second-guess their beliefs? He sought to find out, employing a few ethically questionable treatment methods along the way.

The film version changes Rokeach's name to Dr. Alan Stone. As played by Richard Gere, he hires a research assistant, Becky (Charlotte Hope), and begins therapy. His patients are Joseph (Peter Dinklage), Leon (Walton Goggins), and Clyde (Bradley Whitford). Despite all three being convinced that they're Jesus, each of the men has a different personality. Leon, for example, is an angry Jesus, whereas Joseph is more of a proselytizing one. Of course, they clash, accusing each other of being liars. Then Stone begins some even more unconventional techniques that involve writing the men letters under assumed names to see if he can spur them into changing their thought patterns.

As directed by Jon Avnet, Three Christs sticks fairly true to the basic facts of Rokeach's research. The problem is that the film's focus is on Dr. Stone. He fights with a hospital administrator (Kevin Pollack) over his research. He introduces Becky to LSD so she can understand what it's like to be unable to perceive reality as it actually is. He sees his marriage strain under the weight of his obsessive work habits.

Gere, as always, does fine work and is a pleasure to watch. Stone is not the interesting part, though. The focus of Three Christs should be on Joseph, Leon, and Clyde. Here are schizophrenic men who all believe they're Jesus. Suddenly, they meet two other men with the exact same belief. We want to see more of how they react in the presence of one another. Do you know anybody who has a delusion of this general nature? I do, and getting them to self-reflect is virtually impossible. So much drama is inherent in the premise, yet we get more time with Stone than with the characters who should be central.

Goggins, Whitford, and Dinklage all commit admirably to their roles, largely avoiding the mental health stereotypes that commonly plague movies. They try to be real. The screenplay by Avnet and Eric Nazarian lets them down with dialogue that sounds obviously scripted and is therefore frequently trite. Even when the men are sparring, a spark is missing.

There's a great movie to be made from this story. Three Christs has the right cast for the job, but the approach ensures that it never lifts off dramatically the way it should. The film holds your attention to a degree because the research depicted is inherently fascinating. Even so, given that Rokeach's flawed work ultimately proved groundbreaking in treating schizophrenia, merely “holding your attention” is on the low end of what ought to be delivered.

out of four

Three Christs is rated R for disturbing material, sexual content and brief drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.