In 1959, Milton Rokeach got it in his head that if he gathered together three paranoid schizophrenics convinced of their Christhood, he could relieve them of their delusions. Milton Rokeach was wrong, though his study wasn’t a total bust: One man came to believe that rather than the son of God, he was the son of the Yeti people. So it’s fitting that in The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, the book Rokeach wrote about his work, Rokeach confesses that while the experiment failed, “it did cure me of my godlike delusion that I could manipulate them out of their beliefs.”
Three Christs, Jon Avnet’s adaptation of the book and the study, references this line in its coda, but spends every preceding moment functioning as pseudo-hagiography. This is not a film made in recognition of good intentions gone wildly astray. Instead, it’s made only in recognition of the good intentions, an hour and 40 minutes of applause for Rokeach, because trying, apparently, is good enough. Maybe that’s fair to an extent: The film repeatedly points out that Rokeach’s methods clanged against standard psychiatric protocol, “standard psychiatric protocol” being code for “torture deemed acceptable by the limitations of scientific knowledge.” Rather than submit his patients to electroshock therapy and other forms of dehumanizing medical treatment, Rokeach chose to treat them as human. What a concept.
But Avnet, co-writing with Eric Nazarian, paints Rokeach, here renamed Alan Stone and played by Richard Gere, as a cordial rebel in a field presided over by uptight squares and practitioners of barbarity. He’s a wholesomely agreeable man, sanded down and freed of his ragged, jutting angles. He’s a good husband to his wife, Ruth (Julianna Marguiles), a good dad, a good doctor who’s well-regarded by his peers, a good mentor to his research assistant, Becky Anderson (Charlotte Hope). There is, it seems, very little that Dr. Stone isn’t good at, which makes him a surprising bore considering his inclinations for going against the grain.
Thank goodness for the three Christs of the title. Joseph (Peter Dinklage), Leon (Walton Goggins) and Clyde (Bradley Whitford) may think they’re Jesus of Nazareth (though Clyde insists to everyone that he isn’t actually from Nazareth), but they’re each unique in their own ways. Joseph hears the divine in music. Clyde is convinced that he’s the source of a toxic stench that won’t wash off no matter how many times he showers. Leon has a lawyer’s talent for turning questions around on the person asking them. Not at all surprisingly, they clash at first, each accusing the others of fraud while asserting that they’re Spartacus Jesus.
Three Christs naturally gravitates toward Joseph, Clyde and Leon, and indulges in their misconception, at once collective but heavily individualized by their backstories. The project is undeniably fascinating, so Avnet’s fascination is understandable, but his fixation grows one-sided, leaving little characterization for Stone, or Anderson, or Ruth, or his fellow doctors: Orbus (Kevin Pollak), his mustache-twirling professional nemesis, and Rogers (Stephen Root), his greatest ally in the psychiatric world. Too late the movie scrabbles for sharp edges on Stone’s exterior to rectify the imbalance, mostly by teasing laughably unrealized sexual tension between he and Anderson. (Ruth drunkenly tells Anderson that she was once Stone’s research assistant, too, but this fear of hers, that her husband will abandon her for a younger woman, never goes anywhere.)
Avnet likely means well, just as Rokeach meant well. Three Christs needs more than a deep focus on the Christs themselves, and on the system that so utterly failed them. It needs to focus on Stone, and on the collision between ego and benevolence that led to The Three Christs of Ypsilanti’s birth. That should be the story. Over 60 years later, we know how things went for the Christs; it’s Stone, and the thinking that drove him, that should be at center stage. Instead, Avnet gives us One Flew Over the Cuckoo Christs, the same movie about institutionalized mental health patients that the industry’s been making for decades.
Director: Jon Avnet
Writer: Jon Avent, Eric Nazarian
Starring: Richard Gere, Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins, Bradley Whitford, Julianna Marguiles, Charlotte Hope, Kevin Pollak, Stephen Root, Jane Alexander
Release Date: January 3, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.