Three Identical Strangers—Tim Wardle’s documentary starts off like a corny ’80s sitcom. Bobby Shafran, age 19, shows up for his first day at Sullivan County Community College in New York in 1980, and
is greeted like an old friend; guys slapping him on the back, girls kissing him. Before long he realizes that a guy named Eddy Galland, who had already been a well-liked student there, is his double. When the two men, both of whom are adopted and share a birthday, are placed face to face, it’s clear that they’re twins.
Except that they aren’t twins. A third doppleganger, David Kellman, sees the story about the reunion in the paper, and it becomes obvious that the boys are, in fact, triplets. They immediately become inseparable, get interviewed on TV by Phil Donahue and Tom Brokaw about how they were all three wrestlers, smoked the same brand of cigarettes, had the same taste in women and so forth. They get an apartment together, make a cameo appearance in Desperately Seeking Susan, open a restaurant.
But even that’s not the end of the story. Not even close. Before long it becomes evident that the circumstances of their adoption were not accidental, or unique. They and other identical multiple birth children were deliberately separated and placed with different families, for the purpose of…
Well, that’s enough to give some idea of the scope of this strange true tale. Wardle gives it a sitcom tone at the beginning, cutting the funny interview footage and recreations with ’80s pop on the soundtrack. But as the story presses on into sinister and tragic realms, the film takes on a startling emotional and moral intensity. This isn’t just an improbable human interest story, it’s a true life story of weird science, a meditation on family psychology and nature versus nurture, and a sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes heartwarming generational family drama with a large and vivid cast of characters.
It’s not a simple story, but it boils down to a simple principle, articulated by a relation of the triplets who remembers the Holocaust: “When you play with humans, you do something very wrong.” Or, as one of the other adopted twins replies when an interviewer says that her story is like a Disney movie: “It’s a little darker than a Disney movie.”
It opens at Harkins Camelview at Fashion Square.
In wide release…
The First Purge–James DeMonaco’s 2013 chiller The Purge was set in a not-too-distant future America in which, one night a year for twelve hours, anarchy is sanctioned. All crimes are allowed, murder
included, the supposed idea being that this will purge the nation’s soul of our collective rage, and society will be more stable the rest of the year. Sequels followed, in 2014 and 2016, and now we get this prequel, written by DeMonaco and directed by Gerard McMurray, showing how the horrifying practice began, with an experimental purge confined to Staten Island.
The Fifth Borough just can’t catch a break. This film makes it clear that the reactionary and theocratic new regime, hiding for respectability behind the theories of a psychologist (Marisa Tomei), is deliberately using the event to target the underclass. DeMonaco’s less-than-modest proposal is that this is the logical extension of the hardcore Right’s gun worship and evangelical zeal and class and racial loathing, if they ever dropped the pose of piety.
These movies are disgusting and disingenuous, inviting our righteous contempt for a social outrage of the filmmakers’ own devising, while at the same time offering us our own cathartic kicks from their extreme violence. But there’s no use denying that, at some level, they work, as ugly but compelling and well-plotted Jacobean melodramas. Like DeMonaco, McMurray is skilled at using horror-movie gimmicks like creepy masks and sudden jolts to generate an atmosphere of queasy terror.
Also in common with the earlier films, The First Purge uses, as the good guys, attractive, sympathetic actors for whom it’s hard not to root, like Lex Scott Davis as the heroine and Y’Lan Noel as a drug dealer turned community defender. On the other side is Rotimi Paul, memorably scary and repellent as “Skeletor,” a murderous fellow who really gets into the spirit of the evening.
Just as undeniable as the effectiveness of these movies, alas, is how much less implausible the societal hatred they depict seems now than it did back in 2013. Indeed, it’s hard to shake the suspicion that a portion of the audience would approve of this idea.