It sounds like the set-up for a bad joke: Three Jesus Christs walk into a mental hospital, each claiming to be the real thing. But there’s nothing funny about Jon Avnet’s dreary period drama Three Christs, which is based on a real-life 1959 study about three paranoid schizophrenics in Michigan who all believed themselves to be Jesus Christ. As one of the Christs notes ironically when reading an article about the study, the idea sounds “comical,” but director and co-writer Avnet treats it with straight-faced seriousness, attempting to make a statement about mental health treatment in the ’50s via mostly unconvincing melodrama.
Richard Gere plays Dr. Alan Stone, the movie’s fictionalized version of the psychiatrist behind the study, who’s left academia for a position at the state mental hospital in Ypsilanti. There he discovers two patients, Joseph Cassel (Peter Dinklage) and Clyde Benson (Bradley Whitford), who both claim to be Jesus Christ, and he decides they are the perfect candidates to study for his theories on identity. He scours the state to find a third Christ, Leon Gabor (Walton Goggins), and puts all three together in a room to see if being confronted with each other’s delusions will somehow help bring them back to reality. Stone opposes the accepted methods of the time period for treating mental illness, including the electroshock therapy and strong drugs that his three patients have been subjected to, but it’s never quite clear what is bold or groundbreaking about his approach, which mostly just involves the patients sitting in a room together, along with surprisingly frequent singing of patriotic songs.
Avnet and co-writer Eric Nazarian add in subplots for Stone about his concerned, possibly alcoholic wife (Julianna Margulies in a throwaway role), his potential flirtation with his research assistant Becky (Charlotte Hope) and his clashes with hospital administrators played by Kevin Pollak and Stephen Root, but none of those ever amount to anything, and they end up feeling like filler for a movie that doesn’t know how to turn a fascinating real-life case study into a narrative drama. The movie is framed by Stone recording notes for a hearing in defense of his methods (which eventually include encouraging aspects of the patients’ delusions), but the opening foreshadows a far more sensationalistic drama than what actually unfolds. Stone’s study proceeds sedately for the most part, and the filmmakers struggle to inject conflict into the story.
Dinklage, Whitford, and Goggins throw themselves into the roles of disturbed mental patients, but their performances are all actorly affectations with very little insight. Dinklage carries over his Game of Thrones accent as a man who, in addition to believing he is Jesus Christ, also insists he’s from England, although he’s actually never been there. Goggins plays the conveniently insightful deviant who zeroes in on Stone’s and Becky’s personal issues, although he really just wants someone to be his friend. And Whitford gets the least substantial role of the three Christs, mostly twitching and mumbling as a man who compulsively showers to get rid of a smell only he can perceive.
Stone, of course, harbors a bit of a God complex himself, although Gere’s performance is too subdued to convey anything stronger than mild passion for his work. A quote from the study’s actual author, Milton Rokeach, appears at the end of the movie, asserting that while he was unable to cure the three Christs of their delusions, they successfully cured him of his. But Stone’s emotional arc doesn’t support that kind of revelation. There’s no real anguish here, and the flat visual style, combined with Jeff Russo’s oppressive, treacly score, makes the movie feel more like a basic-cable production than a weighty, probing drama. Avnet wants to give his material the respect he believes it deserves, but he might have been better off turning it into a joke.