by Hope Madden
“Three grown men who believe they are Jesus Christ—it’s almost comical,” reads Bradley Whitford’s Clyde, a Ypsilanti mental patient who happens to be one of those three men. There is something bittersweet and meta about his reading that particular line from Dr. Stone’s (Richard Gere) report on the experimental procedure the doctor is undertaking with his three chosen patients.
On its surface, Three Christs itself seems almost comical. Whitford, Walton Goggins and Peter Dinklage play real life patients institutionalized in Michigan in the 1960s, each of whom believed they were Jesus. Just below the surface is a sad, lonesome story of a medical system ill-equipped and unwilling to treat the individual, and of the peculiar, touching struggles of three souls lost within that system.
Director Jon Avnet, writing with Eric Nazarian, adapts social psychologist Milton Rokeach’s nonfiction book on his own study, “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.”
Whitford’s performance is fine, but he’s somewhat out of his league when compared to Dinklage and Goggins. Dinklage is the film’s heartbeat and he conveys something simultaneously vulnerable and superior in his behavior. He’s wonderful as always, but it’s Goggins who steals this film.
Walton Goggins continues to be an undervalued and under-recognized talent. He can play anything from comic relief to sadistic villainy to nuanced dramatic lead (check out his turn in Them That Follow for proof of the latter). Here the rage that roils barely beneath the surface speaks to the loneliness and pain of constantly misunderstanding and being misunderstood that has marked his character’s entire life.
Gere is the weakest spot in the film. He charms, and his rare scenes with Juliana Margulies, playing Stone’s wife Ruth, are vibrant and enjoyable. But in his responses to his patients and in his struggles against the system (mainly embodied by Stephen Root and Kevin Pollak), he falls back on headshakes, sighs and bitter chuckles.
Aside from two of the three Christs’ performances, Avent’s film looks good but lacks in focus, failing to hold together especially well. The point of the extraordinary treatment method is never very clear, nor is its progress. Stone’s arc is also weak, which again muddies the point of the film.
Three Christs misses more opportunities than it grabs, which is unfortunate because both Dinklage and especially Goggins deliver performances worth seeing.