Stranger than fiction doesn’t begin to describe the truth here
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Movies today have conditioned audiences to accept computer generated tricks as reality. We can watch actors play twins (Jeremy Irons in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers) or clones (Michael Keaton in Multiplicity) or identical robotic versions of the same character (Michael Fassbender in Alien: Covenant) and appreciate not only the performative efforts of the actors but also the seamlessness of the technical craft in those frames. One of the most startling replicate power plays in recent years was Tatiana Maslany’s impossibly complex rendering of a myriad of cloned characters in the BBC series Orphan Black.
That narrative was all about a hand-to-mouth hustler caught up in her own struggles who seemingly falls into a surreal dreamscape when she witnesses an apparent suicide of a woman with her face. Her investigation into that woman’s identity leads down a rabbit hole inhabited by an ever-expanding world of people sharing the same features but leading quite different lives. In the early going, the characters and the audience register a similar degree of shock and awe as Maslany offers up yet another variation on this identity unraveling scheme.
I was reminded of Orphan Black while watching Tim Wardle’s intriguing new documentary Three Identical Strangers, the true story about three young men in New York who, in 1980, stumble upon one another and discover that they are triplets who were separated at birth. The wild and crazy hook here is how seemingly one-in-a-million their initial encounters of each other happen. One of the men wanders around his college campus as a wide-eyed freshman and keeps succumbing to what he imagines is a case of mistaken identity. People continue walking up to him, calling him a different name and sharing anecdotes about spending time with him, so he seeks out his would-be doppelganger, winding up staring into a face that’s far beyond merely similar. The goofy smile, the cute curly hair, and the set of the dark eyes in that face; it is uncanny.
And before long, the film pulls the same trick again, introducing yet another version of that face and the happy surprise in the discovery. These young men embrace the strange coincidence of it all—and the notion of “all” takes on even more meaning once they realize how the parallels appear to be more than skin deep—and, in almost fairy tale fashion, they become media darlings. It helps to remember that this is the early 1980s, long before the 24-hour news cycle and social media.
The film replays clips of the reunited brothers on the Phil Donahue Show crossing their legs at the same time, while flashing their million dollar grins and talking about how each of them wrestled in high school and share an affinity for the same type of women. They captured the collective imaginations of a generation that hadn’t completely lost its innocence. This was the age of the television show That’s Incredible.
David Kellman, Robert Shafran, and Eddy Galland did more than parlay their chance encounters into a flukish payday; they realized a dream of family—the one that should have been and they set about breathing life into it. The triplets lived the lives of early age celebrities (think of them as the male version of the Kardashians), partying hard and fast, before opening a restaurant where patrons made reservations as much for a chance to lay eyes on the curiosity of the brothers and a chance to be a part of their story as for the food. But sadly, dreams almost always come with a hint of danger that triggers a slip into nightmare.
What Three Identical Strangers shows us is that the truth will always get in the way. Starting with simple questions—how and why were the brothers separated in the first place, who was their mother, how did it happen that each of the brothers ended up being adopted by a family that had already adopted other children—their rabbit hole opens up into a dystopian fantasy that rivals the twists and turns of Orphan Black.
The documentary morphs into a true crime thriller, a psychological horror story, and a tragic family drama that, in each escalating and nefarious revelation challenges the audience to set aside what we’ve come to know about evil in the real world. The easy cliché states that bad things happen to good people, but usually those bad things occur, as if from the unseen hands of fate, but Three Identical Strangers proves that some of the very worst situations inflicted upon hapless folks, like these siblings, are the result of premeditated actions taken by callous and cruel people, aided and abetted by systemic forces that stand to lose if the truth is ever revealed.
What a truly strange world we live in.