Tim Wardle’s mind-blowing, consistently watchable, documentary lays out the most incredibly twisty true story that I’ve heard in a long time. If it seems, at first, as though audiences will be treated to nothing more than a heart-warming tale of human connection against the odds, the breezy tone soon dissipates as we turn a corner towards something far more sinister. We soon realise that Three Identical Strangers is a ‘more than meets the eye’ allegory of immorality and corruption.
The feature begins with Bobby Shafran excitedly recounting his first day at Sullivan County College in the 1980s. Everyone whose path he crossed that day appeared to recognise him for some reason. It transpired that he was the spitting image of a guy called Eddy Galland, who he tracked down. Low and behold, they were twins. Widespread media coverage of the reunion attracted a third, David Kellman, and the twins astonishingly became triplets and an overnight global sensation, each revelling in their fifteen minutes of fame and appearing on a multitude of television shows.
The three needed no formal introduction; they knew each other right out of the gate, sharing the same tastes in women and cigarettes, mirroring each other’s movements and finishing each other’s sentences. While much of this was hammed up for the sake of the cameras, it truly represented three lives becoming one. Even though they all grew up in very different households, the similarities almost defied belief and it seemed as if the nature versus nurture debate had finally been solved. Nature undoubtedly had the upper hand.
Seems super rosy, huh? Sadly, this is where things get a bit messed up. After some time, the boys and their adoptive families were overcome by rage at the loss and deprivation involved. The air of injustice left question marks hanging over their heads. Why hadn’t the adoption agency informed the parents about the other brothers? What had they been up to? It reeked of foul play. If something stinks that bad, you soon find its source. And that they did.
With the help of journalist Lawrence Wright, Wardle gets his teeth stuck into the mystery, tearing off bit by fleshy bit. As he does so, awful truths come to light and the chilling motivation behind the separation reveals its stench. Evil reigns strong here as it becomes clear that human lives were toyed with in the so-called name of science by warped, hugely misguided, scientist Peter B. Neubauer and his seemingly brainwashed research team. As the documentary team near the end of their investigation, earlier conclusions about nurture versus nature are thrown into chaos, and nature no longer seems to be the victor in the battle.
This film is as scandalous and disturbing as it gets, presenting a story that would lend itself well to a deranged psychological thriller. Sadly, though compelling as a documentary, the film is a smidgen pedestrian. Despite this, Three Identical Strangers grips from the first moment, keeping viewers satiated with detailed accounts of events and developing its subjects well as the tale unfolds. The result is a somewhat imperfect vignette of the darker side of science, of human curiosity and of mental health. The film tackles all these themes – and others – with cautious respect, serving more questions than it answers. Dr. Neubauer, a real-life Bond villain for sure, has taken his eerie secrets to his grave. Let’s pray that scientific ethics are far stronger today. Eesh.