There are two ways to approach Jon Avnet’s Three Christs, a drama based on the infamous 1959-1961 psychological study at Ypsilanti State Hospital where three paranoid schizophrenics who believed themselves to be Jesus Christ were made to live together. The first is as a traditional historical drama reconstructing the study, and to this end the film is a woeful disappointment. Alternatively treacly and maudlin, the film treats one of the most significant psychological case studies of the twentieth century as a journey of self-discovery for the officiating researcher Milton Rokeach, here renamed Dr. Alan Stone for a third act reveal about his ancestry that’s more groan-worthy than illuminating. Stone is that most tragic of scientific figures—a pioneer trapped in an ignorant era lacking both the tools and support to match their noble aspirations. In this case, Stone had the bold vision of treating mental patients with non-coercive empathy and kindness instead of straightjackets, insulin-induced comas, and shock treatment.
The film hints at but never fully develops the idea that Stone develops his own Christ complex working with his delusional patients, instead pulling away from psychological introspection to mine his truly blasé home life. Indeed, there’s a whole subplot involving his alcoholic wife becoming jealous of his research assistant Becky (Charlotte Hope) that comes from and ultimately ends up nowhere.
However, the second way to approach Three Christs—and it’s perhaps the reasoning behind its theatrical distribution a year and a half after its tepid TIFF debut—is as a showcase for the three great character actors playing the patients: Peter Dinklage plays Joseph, a Mozart-loving nervous wreck with a faux-British accent whose violent outbursts result in frequent shock treatment; Walton Goggins plays Leon, a highly intelligent and emotionally manipulative sociopath of the Hannibal Lector model whose confused sexual yearnings manifest into a fascination with an imaginary “Madame Yeti” and an obsession with Becky; Bradley Whitford plays Clyde, the most pathetic of the three, a debilitated knot of pain and trauma who carries a box of keepsakes with him wherever he goes and obsessively showers multiple times a day to get “the stink” off him. None of these actors succumb to the temptation of playing their characters like Looney Tunes; even at their most histrionic they exude a powerful dignity. It’s a shame the rest of the film couldn’t equal their excellence.