Say a prayer for the misguided indie.
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been a big admirer of the path Richard Gere’s career has gone over the last several years. The actor, once known for sleek studio fare that tended to keep him in the realm of romantic leading man has been replaced by a collection of roles which show the actor eager to explore other sides of his talent. His work as a hedge fund tycoon who finds himself in over his head in Arbitrage earned Gere his best reviews in a decade, while his turn as a pathetic wannabe operator in 2017’s Norman was a tour-de-force with the actor at his most tragic and compelling. The Dinner was a trifle, but Gere soared as a father willing to go to any length to protect his son, almost managing to save the misjudged adaptation. Because of this upswing in terms of choices and performances, many within the film world have begun to look forward to Gere’s next project and the new territories he will venture to, whatever they may be. While he’s been attached to his latest film, the Jon Avnet-directed mental illness drama Three Christs for a long while before the cameras rolled, it’s lackluster execution and generally uninspiring nature represents a definite, if only temporary setback for the actor after years of solid, dependable work.
Based on a true story, Three Christs explores the controversial work of Dr. Alan Stone (Gere), a psychologist who traveled to a state mental hospital in the midwest in order to treat a trio of men (Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins and Bradley Whitford) during the late 50s, each of whom believed they were in fact, Jesus Christ. With his devoted research assistant Becky (Charlotte Hope) by his side and his loving wife Ruth (Julianna Marguiles) giving him support, Alan embarks on a mission to prove that cases such as the ones afflicting the three Christs can be treated through ordinary therapy rather than the practice of electrocution.
As a director, Avnet has always managed to find a balance between painting his films with a Hollywood sheen, while managing to find the essence of what makes them tick. The director clearly knows how to deliver a crowd-pleaser which also does right by the people on the screen and their struggles. Fried Green Tomatoes, The War and Up Close and Personal all manage to be delightfully popcorn and contain considerable weight where humanity is concerned. By all accounts, Three Christs should be a slam dunk for Avnet, but his approach to the material comes off as a little too pedestrian with the director barely managing to engage with the material in front of him. The techniques which gave Avent his name in the 90s lets him down in today’s movie landscape as the director makes two missteps for every right move. Alan is shown to be passionate about his work, but shows more fire as a character when he’s defending it rather than studying it, while scenes between him and Ruth feel too cliche and curiously out of place. The director rebounds by exploring the naivate of Becky, making her a well-rounded character as she tries to prove to everyone, including herself, that a career in the mental health profession is what she’s meant for. Avnet then stumbles again by giving us suggestions that Alan’s home life has started to suffer because of his work. Whether it’s the confines of the script he was given, or the idea that he’s directing some glossy studio title from the 90s, Avnet’s proven talents are simply a no-show here.
The “novelty” of Three Christs is the outrageous idea that there were three men in a mental facility who each believed with every fibre of their beings that they were each Jesus Christ. To be fair, it’s a huge concept, and to not use it as the film’s main hook would have been a mistake. But in doing this, the filmmakers have greatly compromised the movie’s main aim to the point where it’s almost lost altogether. The whole meaning behind Alan’s work was to prove that mental illness wasn’t an affliction which could automatically be cut out or zapped away, but a condition of the human mind which required research, study, therapy, and above all else, empathy. It was a radical notion for the time and it’s no wonder that the movie’s main protagonist has to conveniencely convince others that such a theory is true. It’s just a shame that the movie doesn’t see it the same way. Three Christs is so hell bent on watching its three patient characters act out their Christ-like tendencies while getting into verbal spats with one another over who is actually the lord savior himself. As Alan and Becky do virtually nothing but sit back and watch, you begin to suspect that this Avnet is slowly realizing this isn’t the movie he thought he signed on to make and is now relying on the more theatrical elements to pull it through. Eventually the director finds himself more concerned with giving these actors in mental hospital garbs enough to do before eventually allowing them to overtake what Three Christs should have been about all along.
Gere is good in the lead role, but the role is not good for Gere. So much of the film has him looming in the background while the trio of actors play out their interpretations of the man upstairs. There are times when Gere manages to shine, usually when describing why the nature of his work moves him as much as it does. Marguilies is saddled with such a nothing part, it’s a true wonder why the star of The Good Wife agreed to it. Hope shows real promise and makes a great partner-in-crime for Gere, while Kevin Pollack, Stephen Root and Jane Alexander take turns as the heads of the mental facility in which Gere is carrying out his experiments. If there’s one thing Three Christs does right, it’s giving Dinklage, Goggins and Whitford the kinds of roles and scenes which take full advantage of their collectively underused talents. Each one is able to craft his own character away from his delusion ensuring that in spite of its problems, the film remains watchable at least on this level.
When you think about the story Three Christs could have been, it’s tough not to feel a little bit sad that such a milestone in the field of mental health has been given the short stick here. I remember former First Lady Rosalynn Carter describing her efforts to get more media coverage on her work in mental health during her time in the white house. When she eventually managed to ask a reporter why her mental health initiatives received little-to-no press attention, the reporter told her flat out that mental health was just not a sexy issue. It would appear that Avent and the rest of the team behind Three Christs feel that the issue also doesn’t make for a sexy movie, even if they themselves don’t know it. What should have been a film about how the act of diagnosing and treating those with mental illness was greatly changed thanks to the radical and revolutionary work of this one doctor, is instead a drama more concerned with theatrics rather than the real life work that inspired it. The arena of mental health has made great strides since the work of Dr. Grant and Mrs. Carter was put into effect; but it still has a long way to go in terms of science and public perception. According to Three Christs, this is still the case.