It’s usually not a good sign when a film gets its theatrical release three years after completion. Three Christs, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017 and goes into general release on Friday, Jan. 10 at San Jose’s 3Below Theaters and Lounge (more relevantly for interested Berkeleyside readers, the film will be widely available on streaming services), is a decent but far from great film heretofore overlooked by distributors in spite of its sterling cast and intriguing premise.
Directed by Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes) and based on a book by Milton Rokeach, Three Christs is a 1950’s period piece headlined by Richard Gere as Dr. Alan Stone, a psychiatrist newly assigned to Michigan’s Ypsilanti State Hospital. Stone is immediately intrigued by patients Cassell (Peter Dinklage, affecting an overly dramatic English accent that may be in character but just doesn’t work) and Benson (Bradley Whitford, in the film’s best performance), who both profess to be Jesus Christ.
If there can be two saviors, why not more? Stone dispatches recent college grad and newly hired assistant Becky Anderson (Charlotte Hope) to scour the state’s mental institutions for other Christs; she turns up Leon Gabor (Walton Goggins), who is immediately transferred to Ypsilanti to complete its sons of God collection.
Convinced he can more effectively help the three Christs by treating them together, Stone crosses swords with unenthusiastic hospital chief Orbus (Kevin Pollak), who’s not impressed or pleased by his new employee’s willingness to forego electroshock therapy and drug treatment in favor of therapy sessions: by golly, this is the 1950s, and it’s established protocol to subject patients to cruelty and torture! One can only assume Orbus hadn’t been impressed by such muckraking Hollywood exposés of psychiatric mistreatment as Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit (1948), as he goes to extraordinary lengths to stop Stone’s attempt to try something new.
This sounds like a pretty good recipe for drama, but dramatic highlights are precisely what Three Christs lacks. Once the film’s protagonists are gathered together under Stone’s supervision, the sparks don’t exactly fly – sure, there’s plenty of gabbing, but no great revelations until the film reaches its frankly unbelievable denouement.
Gere’s character is given a thinly drawn spouse (Julianna Margulies) to joust with, and there’s an ill-advised and unnecessary LSD sub-plot in an apparent attempt to shoehorn in yet another late 1950s psychiatric trope. The three Christs, meanwhile, are all allowed to sport long hair and beards: perhaps I’m mistaken, but surely 1950s social mores would have demanded greater regimentation and better grooming on the psych ward?
Whitford is memorable as Benson, a World War II veteran who can’t shake off the battlefield stench of death and decay; Gere is solid and Pollak reasonably and believably villainous. Margulies, meanwhile, deserved a better fate: her character starts out as a strong counterpart to her husband but is ultimately consigned to a predictable, soap opera-ish fate as a spurned woman.
In sum, Three Christs features a fine cast, a scattershot script, and a cloying, old-fashioned score from composer Jeff Russo. Fans of Gere and Dinklage will surely want to check it out, but others will likely be underwhelmed.