In 1980, Robert Shafran drove from Westchester County to the Catskills. It was his first day of college – a community college, he modestly notes, but still, he was going. As he walked through the campus, the 19-year-old noticed how friendly everyone was … excessively so, in some cases. Then people started calling him “Eddy” and welcoming him back, despite the fact he’d never attended a day of classes here before. Another student tells Robert that he’s a dead ringer for his friend, Eddy Galland. Soon, they’re driving to Long Island to meet him. It turns out that the men are, in fact, long-lost brothers. Though they’ve just met, they behave so similarly it’s eerie. A journalist takes an interest. A picture is published in the New York Post. Seeing the photo, a young woman calls her friend David Kellman and says, “These guys look just like you!” There’s a reason for that: The three men are triplets, separated at birth almost two decades prior.
If you read the New York tabloids or tuned in to afternoon TV back in the day, you may remember the next chapter – in case you don’t, the documentary Three Identical Strangers will helpfully fill you in. The reunited siblings bond immediately, with home-movie footage showing them making up for lost time. They become minor celebrities and start touring the chat-show circuit, charming a massive Donahue show crowd and logging a cameo in Desperately Seeking Susan. After getting a taste of fame and late nights clubbing at Studio 54, each of the brothers finds a soulmate and settles down, as well as partnering in a Soho restaurant named – what else? – Triplets. Their respective parents have more than a few questions for the Louise Wise Adoption Agency, which split the three babies up and placed them in different homes. (“Most people would not have taken all three” was their line of reasoning.) Still, happily-ever-after domesticity beckons, though one of them admits to wondering whether this whole thing was “gonna be great or terrible” in the long run. They will get an answer to that question soon enough.
Meanwhile, down in Austin, Texas, journalist (and former RS contributor) Lawrence Wright is working on a story for the New Yorker about twins. While he’s diving deep into research for his piece, he comes across a small article in a semi-obscure science journal. His equivalent of a Spidey sense begins to tingle, so he makes a few phone calls. At which point, he discovers something …
This is the moment in which any self-respecting writer or critic will stop going into detail and let audiences discover what can only be described as a sharp left turn, or perhaps a full-speed plummet off a previously unnoticed, completely uncharted cliff. (We’re told the kids these days call such revelations “spoilers.”) It’s safe to note, however, that this is where the extraordinary Three Identical Strangers stops being merely a human-interest news segment writ large and starts becoming something darker, more tragic – and way, way more interesting. Some new talking heads enter the scene. You become acutely aware of who has not been weighing in on the events on-camera. The notion of ethics, the legacy of genetics and the nature-versus-nurture argument all come into play, as does a sense that some sort of ancient curse has been put on these three men; this doc would make a great double feature with the horror movie Hereditary, assuming anyone’s central nervous system could possibly handle such a thing.
It’s a compelling, twist-filled tale, one told with a highly developed sense of empathy, a few aesthetic missteps (perhaps it’s time to issue a permanent moratorium on montages set to “Walkin’ on Sunshine”? Actually, scratch the perhaps there) and a knack for turning into the triplets’ experience into something bigger than just stranger-than-fiction tabloid fodder. Wisely, British filmmaker Tim Wardle sticks to a basic template that hovers between your average pop-doc stylization and straight just-the-facts-ma’am recounting – call it Dateline with benefits – and allows the momentum of the story itself to carry the last half. Any overly outré flourishes, poetic or otherwise, might have been distracting. Any more testimonials, archival footage, shots of people watching clips on laptops, etc., and it would have risked cinematically flatlining. What happens to these men in the aftermath of finding out that strings have been being pulled is enough to keep folks tuned in.
And if the movie never quite explores its philosophical ramifications as much as it could have (or should have), it also doesn’t exploit its subjects in a freakshow manner. You never forget that there are human beings at the center of this fantastic yarn; the film won’t let you. Long after the holy-shit! shock of Three Identical Strangers wears off, you’re left with a sense of how lucky these men were to find each other – and how the concept of luck never should have been a factor in the first place.