There is a piece of archival footage in Three Identical Strangers that director Tim Wardle plays for the audience in triplicate: the boys, the subjects of the film, on a talk show in what appears to be a megachurch arena. The host, grey haired, stands closer with his audience, as the sideshow attraction sit on the yellowy orange carpeted stage, wearing the same outfit: a vomit and sunburnt green pull over and khaki pants. Their legs are spread apart and they slouch, and were they on the R train, they could easily be accused of manspreading. Three fold. The host, holding a microphone that looks like a Freudian lollipop, points out that the three of them are sitting in the same position. A quarter of a second later, the boy on the far left crosses his legs, and the other two, like a wave, follow. And although it’s played like magical, hokey intuition between the three identical triplets, their unknowable shared energy on display for the whole world, seeing the footage played twice, and three times reveals a bit of hesitancy on the second and third brothers in terms of following the action. But it happens, and the crowd goes wild, three times. Unquestioned.
While Wardle is enamored of this archival footage, and even more so concting low rent sub-Errol Morris reenactments, so, too, are he and the various interview subjects enamored with the capital S Story of this all. David, Bobby, and others are so shocked and so excited by the story! Who cares about the nuances and complexities at play in Three Identical Strangers — which is, at any moment, about nature vs. nurture, institutional corruption, medical malpractice, science and ethics, mental illness, human nature, family, investigative journalism, authenticity — when the broad story of it all is so exciting? Wardle uses triplets David Kellman, (the late) Eddy Galland and Bobby Shafran’s story of triplets separated at birth as part of a conspiracy/psychological study (not disclosed to the adopted parents), and reunited at 19, as ostensible jumping off points to explore a host of complicated issues surrounding identity, adoption, and science, Wardle is patently less interested in those nuances and far more intrigued with how well the bizarre quality of the story will sell. It’s sensationalism, creakily rearing its head in every use of stringy and morbid music (unsubtly composed by Paul Saunderson); choice of archival footage, reenactment footage, and talking head footage; and editing (by Michael Harte), particularly with regards to structure.
So Eddy Galland’s suicide isn’t really a crucial detail of the effects of attachment disorder, depression, manic depression, or inherited mental illness, at least not in this film. (His wife is quoted as say, “When I married him, I didn’t know I was marrying a manic depressive.” No shit, Sherlock.) Here, it’s played as a twist, a reveal late in the film, a mix of tragedy and shock, a perfect tool to explicate how the fairy tale reunion between the brothers was not all it seemed, etc. etc. That the three brothers had all, at one point or another in their youth, dealt with mental health issues is a convenient detail revealed not as the respective boys’ youths, and differences in childhoods are explored (jk, this never really happens), but rather a convenient detail and a brief segue to discuss how many of the children that were part of the study the boys were part of may be predisposed to mental health issues. Home video and archival interviews are cherry picked, and unskillfully edited, to paint Eddy as a man with demons. His father, illustrated as the strictest of the three, is implied to be an alcoholic. Their biological mother, only seen in reenactment flashback, is also implied to be an alcoholic.
But when the film is at its most interesting, as this quasi-investigative doc about why the controversial study was never published after the research was decades long over, Wardle still prioritizes the drama of everything instead of committing to answering tough, uncomfortable questions about identity and science. It’s never questioned or interrogated how much these boys are performing for the audience in their media heyday. The nuances of the actual nurture part of their lives are seldom explored in detail, particularly the stark socioeconomic contrasts between the families (covering the spectrum — working class, middle class, upper middle class). The uncomfortable irony of a Freudian psychologist who escaped the Nazis performing what some may deem a Mengele-esque experiment is not challenged. Time is collapsed and the narrative of their lives streamlined for ultra convenience, at the sacrifice of understanding how their reunion, and subsequent media attention, affected their day to day lives. It’s all very half assed CNN soap opera nonsense, especially when threads are picked up and dropped in a matter of moments, without any thorough examination.
This could have been other movies. What would this film have been if it had been less about these boys and more about the institutional deceit and the ethical risks taken for a study that went unpublished? The research has sat in Yale’s vaults, sealed, for decades, but perhaps if the film had been built around Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright — seen paging faux-inquisitively through a dozen books with, like every other damn talking head in this film, dim lighting and a grey, washed out palette — unearthing the results or possible conclusions of this study? Tracking down the various people involved? We do see him speak to a couple of people who were connected to the study, and these are easily the most interesting scenes, but ultimately feel like a different film. But if the mental illness, the melange of predetermined difference had been laid out on the table beforehand, sure, it would have been less fun (for someone) functioning not as a reveal, but it would have been more intellectually honest, and more, shall we say, ethical in the context of documentary filmmaking.
What if it had been about one brother and followed that person’s life from start to “finish”, investigating and profiling in detail how their life was shaped by this experience? What they did or did not do, what regrets they have about how the three interacted? The thread of the business venture the boys went in on, a restaurant called Triplets, feels disjointed and incomplete, somewhat nonsensical. Or it could have been about one of the set of parents and their reactions to everything. Rather, it’s a hodgepodge of ideas and strings, giving the film little to ground it.
The exploitation of the story, and its baggage, feels especially gross because it’s a film that pretends to be about humanity. At the very end of the film, the editor of the original Newsday article offers platitudes about how everyone else was looking for how similar they were and that we should be looking for their differences. And finally, the boys also admit they played up their similarities, wanted to be similar. But it’s a crock of shit when the last 80 minutes have done little to explore those differences — cultural, emotional, psychological. David Cronenberg and Charlie Kaufman are more thoughtful about twins than Wardle is. Wardle reveals himself as interested in nothing, not even the human condition to this story, but cheap tabloid drama, and, worse, doesn’t have the self awareness to explore the meta, postmodern implications of that modern mythologization. “Truth is stranger than fiction” is just a marketing strategy.