It is the grandest of delusions: to believe oneself to be Jesus Christ. In the middle of the 20th century, Milton Rokeach brought three such deluded men together in a psychiatric ward at Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan. The movie Three Christs (2017, US release 2020; available on Showtime on Amazon) is loosely based on that experiment. Richard Gere plays Dr. Alan Stone (standing in for Rokeach), who is presented as a progressive doctor opposed to the typical ways of treating paranoid schizophrenics—in particular, electro-shock therapy.
The movie has a great cast, including Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins, and Bradley Whitford as the “three Christs.” They are excellent, and Gere is mostly good (although I think he makes the same facial expressions in every role). There are some funny parts, and the exchanges between the men when they are moved to the same ward, as well as Stone’s interactions with his daughters, are probably when they are at their best.
Three Christs tells a story of a doctor simply trying to help people, frustrated by bureaucracy and the accepted protocols of his discipline. And while the consequences of Stone’s actions are shown to be often negative, both for him and for his patients, it comes across in the movie mostly as minimally misguided—even though the final title screen quotes Rokeach as having said that though he couldn’t cure them of their god-like delusions, they cured him of his.
In such superficial ways, the film keeps appearing to approach some kind of profundity, but whenever I tried to grab hold of what that might be, it disappeared. So Stone seems to have his own god delusion, thinking he could control the experiment and produced mechanical results, though he was dealing with human beings, whose mental mysteries are beyond any person. At the same time, Stone, Becky (his graduate assistant), and Stone’s wife Ruth (Julianna Margulies, so under-used as to be almost a non-character) are themselves psychologized as explanations for why they are involved in their various ways.
Additionally, the way the movie starts, with Stone recording his side of the story in response to his dismissal, doesn’t seem to be inform the story the way one expects. The responses to the experiment all seem a little facile, more bluster than bite—which, perhaps, is why the fictional end of Joseph and Stone’s story about why he had to change his name are needed, to bolster a limping plot.
Three Christs wants to probe deep questions of identity, control, humanity, and psychology, but it never quite succeeds, in spite of its cast and the intriguing story.