One of the more unexpected developments in domestic box office numbers this summer has been the success of the small-scale documentary as a medium. In a way, this makes sense for our current political environment, where titles like RBG & Won’t You Be My Neighbor? feel like vital antidotes to the Trumpian dark times of the world outside. The success of the 2018 documentary has trickled down to less overtly political works as well, however, at least enough to muddle that reductive explanation. The most convincing theory I’ve heard so far for the medium’s current popularity was from critic Paul Matwychuk on the Trash, Art, and the Movies podcast. Matwychuk supposes that Netflix’s extensive documentary programming has softened wide audiences up to the idea of paying to see docs as big screen entertainment. I’d also extend that hypothesis to the recent increased popularity of ”true crime” narratives in podcasts, literature, and—of course—Netflix programming. The true crime effect would at least help explain the popularity of the recent documentary Three Identical Strangers, which doesn’t have the same value as a leftist political antidote as the Fred Rogers or Ruth Bader Ginsberg docs. This is a movie with very little entertainment value to offer mass audiences outside the basic pleasure of hearing an incredibly twisty, sinister story told directly with little embellishment. Even though that approach is more or less timeless, it likely wouldn’t have been nearly as much of a breakout success just a few years ago, for whatever reason you want to suppose.
Revealing too much of the story told in Three Identical Strangers to the uninitiated would risk zapping the film of its power. However, its inciting events are already public knowledge because of their value as a tabloid curio. Triplet brothers, unaware of each other’s existence until the absurdly late age of 19, discovered by chance that they were not alone in this world. The first act of Three Identical Strangers walks the audience through the implausibility of this real-life farce step by step. One brother attends a community college where he’s greeted with open arms as if he’d already been a student there for years, only to discover that he was mistaken for his in-the-flesh doppelgänger. Once the two brothers met their happenstance was odd enough to make the papers, which alerted their third duplicate to the uncanny truth that the three of them, total strangers, were long-lost triplets. There is a kind of sinister quality to the discovery that a person has an exact duplicate out in the world, one that has been explored in many notable psychological thrillers, including recent titles like The One I Love, Enemy, The Double, Double Lover, etc. The joy the brothers found in discovering each other’s existence outweighed any of that initial eeriness, however. They sold their story as a kind of novelty act, leveraging it for appearances at Studio 54, on Donahue, in Desperately Seeking Susan, and on the marquee of their own triplets-themed restaurant. It wasn’t until their parents began picking at the hows & whys of their separation that the sinister aspect of their story began to reveal itself, which is where the film transforms from a farcical human interest story into a true crime, conspiracy theory narrative.
The tactics Three Identical Strangers uses to dole out the insidious details of the brothers’ separation are immediately familiar to the documentary format, especially once you consider that the film is co-produced by CNN. Talking head interviewees appear before senior-portrait backdrops so generic they feel parodic. Photographs & cheap reenactments inform their direct-to-the-camera dialogue in the exact ways you’d expect, recalling more or less all post-Thin Blue Line true crime media, especially television series like Dateline & 20/20. Where Three Identical Strangers excels is in its willingness to revisit & pick apart earlier information with each twisty revelation. The audience is walked through each reveal & self-realization as the brothers lived it, which transforms earlier, uninformed statements that appeared to be fun anecdotes in the first act into something much eerier & more sinister. As the conspiracy that separated the triplets in the first place comes into sharper focus, interviewees make some very questionable accusations for tidy, last-minute closure to their story. Each hypothesis is allowed to hang with equal weight, unchallenged in its overlapping contradiction with the next (like in the editorial-free Rodney Ascher documentaries The Nightmare & Room 237). If the story, still in development, has taught us anything to date, it’s that the facts are so heavily guarded that any clear, tidy answers are impossible at this time (and will remain so until this film’s inevitable sequel in 2066). That continued mystery not only strengthens the film’s central Nature vs. Nurture binary debate, an age-old argument that can never be fully settled because each polarity informs & influences the other; it also makes for great post-screening theater lobby discussion, which is a large part of this twisty story’s appeal.
The story told in Three Identical Strangers may be factually bizarre, but there are plenty of other recent documentaries with equally twisty, unbelievable tales of true life menace that failed to produce anywhere near its box office numbers: Tickled, Weiner, The Act of Killing, etc. While I appreciate the film for what it is and the conversation it sparks, I’m even more fascinated by the larger boon it represents for its medium, which has never been especially popular outside an occasional outlier like Fahrenheit 9/11. I’m less emotionally invested in this individual film’s success than I am in the success of the documentary at large and I would be overjoyed to see this recent trend continue. I can’t think of a better medium to counterbalance the cinematic summer’s typical offerings of large-scale fantasy blockbusters (for the record, I do enjoy a healthy dose of both), no matter what cultural primer helped get us here – Netflix, S-Town, Serial, Trump, or otherwise.