If Three Identical Strangers were a book, it would be the kind of page-turner that you devour in a single weekend. Unlike most paperback potboilers, though, Three Identical Strangers’ bizarre, emotional rollercoaster lingers with you—and not merely because it all actually happened. Tim Wardle’s documentary ends up taking viewers to a very dark place, and, even as it remains a compulsively watchable and digestible experience, it refuses to offer the kind of clear-cut resolution we demand from mysteries.
All of this makes Three Identical Strangers an easy film to recommend but a difficult one to summarize. Its twists and turns, from euphoric highs to shattering lows, are best experienced knowing as little as possible, so I should be careful. Or maybe I’m making too big a deal out of it: Many of the events in the movie are public knowledge—some were big news in their day—and there’s even another documentary, Lori Shinseki’s The Twinning Reaction, that covers much of the same ground (a chunk of it aired in March on 20/20).
But let’s assume you’re going in cold. The film’s opening scenes possess their own kind of page-turning fascination, and apart from some awkward reenactments, Wardle unspools the yarn with incredible tact and technique. A 19-year-old student, Robert Shafran, goes off to college in 1980, and arrives on campus only to have his new classmates—total strangers—behave as if they already know him.
It’s eventually determined that he’s been mistaken for Eddy Gallan, another student, and within a matter of hours, Robert and Eddy, both raised by adoptive parents, are staring at each other and realizing they’re long-lost twins. Their story is treated as a type of feel-good, can-you-believe-it soap opera by the newspapers—and the very photos published of the identical Robert and Eddy catch the attention of a third look-alike, David Kellman, who turns their reunited-twins story into a reunited-triplets one.
The three brothers quickly make up for lost time, becoming inseparably close as they turn into tabloid sensations. The archival footage from the early 1980s is indescribably charming: All three men, with huge, toothy grins and matching curly hair, look deliriously happy. We see them on talk shows like Donahue, where they emphasize their similarities: same mannerisms, same vocabulary, same brand of cigarettes, same taste in women. And simultaneously, we think we can maybe detect an undercurrent of sadness, a hint of what they’ve lost in the years they’ve been apart.
But the film moves so swiftly and compulsively through this first phase of the story that as soon as you begin to form a question—“Okay, sure, these guys are eerily similar, but what about...?”—you’re thrust into the next big revelation. There’s even a subplot about one of the brothers being involved in a murder, which is dismissed almost as quickly as it’s introduced. This movie is not about that story.
The first signal that something isn’t quite right is the absence of Eddy from the modern-day interview footage. And Robert and David, looking significantly less alike than they did in 1980, don’t just look older—they look worn, sad, broken. So what happened in the intervening years? Were these three men so eager to redefine themselves in terms of their new status as celebrities—even opening a trendy Manhattan restaurant called Triplets—that they ended up muting their own identities? And how on earth did they get separated in the first place?
I wouldn’t dream of answering these questions—but Three Identical Strangers does, to shocking and profound effect. And the questions it doesn’t answer are even more fascinating.