Monday, January 6, 2020

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, Michigan Battle It Out in Jon Avnet's Fact-Based Film

Goggins, Dinklage, Gere, and Whitford / IFC
(Jon Avnet, USA, 2019, 109 minutes) 

In 1959, when Jon Avnet's fact-based One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-meets-Awakenings film begins, paranoid schizophrenics were treated with prefrontal lobotomy, insulin-induced coma, electroshock therapy, and anti-psychotic drugs. Therapy wasn't considered a significant treatment option.

Dr. Stone (Richard Gere with credible Brooklyn accent) sets the story in motion when he makes the switch from professor to institutional psychologist. Concerned that state hospitals have an assembly-line approach to patient care, he believes that more humane methods can produce better results. Faced with overcrowding, under-staffing, and bureaucratic resistance--Ypsilanti State Hospital has five staff psychiatrists for 4,000 patients--he has a considerable challenge ahead of him.

Dr. Stone is just settling into his new gig when Joseph Cassel (Peter Dinklage), a patient calling himself Jesus of Nazareth, attempts to take his life with a serrated can lid. He only succeeds in cutting his arm and that of the doctor when Stone attempts to restrain him. The next two Christs include Clyde Benson (Bradley Whitford) and Leon Gabor (Walton Goggins). By the time Dr. Stone meets Leon, he has hired the Amy Adams-looking Becky Anderson (Charlotte Hope, a Games of Thrones vet, like Dinklage) as his research assistant. In the course of their interview, he notices she took a year off. She had to deal with a family issue, she explains, but neglects to provide details. It's a given we'll find out by the end of the film.

Goggins as Leon Gabor / IFC
For his next move, Dr. Stone removes the three Christs from the general population and meets with them regularly. The first group therapy session goes poorly when Leon insults Joseph, who attacks him, but no one is hurt and the sessions continue. Leon proceeds to take a special interest in Becky, starting by claiming that she's attracted to him. Then he claims that Dr. Stone is attracted to her. Both of these things may be true, but he's mostly trying to get her to react. She does her best not to take the bait.

The other Christs have their own unique characteristics: Joseph, who has an Edwardian-style vocabulary, speaks with a British accent, though Leon tells us he's from Canada, and Clyde carries a rumpled cardboard box with him that contains a photograph of his late wife. The implication: he suffered a psychotic break after her death. He's also convinced there's an ever-present stench in the air. Considering that he's confined to an overcrowded mental hospital, that may also be true.

After a few sessions in which Dr. Stone and Becky engage with the Christs, the doctor leaves them to their own devices, instructing them to take turns serving as chairman and to begin by singing a song. He and Becky continue to observe them from behind glass. Together, they decide to honor the delusions the men harbor, instead of trying to disabuse them of notions that have some basis in fact. It's against protocol, and Dr. Stone's colleagues, including the sympathetic Dr. Rogers (Stephen Root) have their doubts.

Adding to Becky's stress: Dr. Stone's wife, Ruth (Julianne Margulies), thinks she's attracted to her husband, a theory that has nothing to do with the young woman's professional deportment and everything to do with the fact that Ruth, now a mother of two, also started out as his research assistant--and that he's played by Richard Gere, who's still plenty foxy even if he's 42 years older than Charlotte Hope (then again, Gere is at least 33 years older than his current wife). Unfortunately, this story strand gets short shrift, which means Julianna Margulies gets short shrift, and that's a shame when fans of The Good Wife know just how hard she can go when given the chance. Still, she looks fabulous, and that's...something, I suppose.

Charlotte Hope as the good doctor's assistant / IFC
For the most part, though, I was on board until a development that isn't completely unexpected--it involves a collision between the unorthodox Dr. Stone and his by-the-books boss, Dr. Orbus (Kevin Pollak)--but it stops the film cold. And it never recovers. That may be why it was completed in 2017 and shelved for three years, despite the name-brand talent involved.

As for the director, Avnet is best known for 1991's Fried Green Tomatoes, and he was also one of the driving forces behind FX's Justified on which Goggins played meth-dealing antihero Boyd Crowder. I suspect that Goggins' involvement in the show led to his casting here, and he's quite good. (Plus, he looks cooler in white scrubs than any man has a right to.) If anything, the acting is good all-around; it's the writing from Avnet and co-writer Eric Nazarian, drawing from Dr. Milton Rokeach's 1964 book-length study The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, that lets this charismatic cast down.

It's too bad, because I would have liked to learn more about how psychiatry can better serve paranoid schizophrenics. If you take this film literally, Dr. Stone's approach works 66.66% of the time, more in terms of relieving their loneliness than exorcising their delusions, but we're never told if it's still in practice today, not least when overcrowding, under-staffing, and bureaucratic resistance persist. Nor do we find out what happened to Becky, whose chemistry with Leon suggests mutual attraction. Did she even exist? Or was she a screenwriter's contrivance? Hope's sensitively-rendered performance makes me want to believe, but I'm left with more doubts than not. A film doesn't have to answer every question it raises, but this one leaves too many unanswered. The subject--and the actors--deserves better.


Three Christs opens at the Varsity Theatre on Friday, Jan 10. According to Wikipedia, "The book served as inspiration for the song 'Ypsilanti' on the Detroit band Protomartyr's debut album No Passion All Technique."

No comments:

Post a Comment