Opening on World AIDS Day, Thom Fitzgerald‘s “3 Needles” sets itself up as a consciousness raiser from the get-go. Chronicling three stories built around the disease’s manifestations across geographic and cultural distances in just over two hours, no wonder the result is reductive–but still, you start off giving its good intentions the benefit of the doubt. It dutifully begins with a tale of villagers in rural China stricken by the epidemic after a woman (Lucy Liu) running a black market blood collection scam sets up shop in town. But you’d be mistaken in assuming this first episode–a clearly heartfelt illustration lacking in dramatic impetus and bearing a whiff of condescension–as emblematic of those to come; it gets much grimier than that.
The next installment, set in Montreal, finds a mother (Stockard Channing) actively seeking to contract HIV upon the discovery that her porn actor son (Shawn Ashmore) has been spreading the virus around. Failing to test positive after an unprotected tryst in a strip club with a man she spots in his support group meeting, she–wait for it–takes a hypodermic needle to the boy’s arm as he sleeps so she can inject herself with his blood. Oh, but first the devoutly Catholic woman arranges a two-million-dollar life insurance policy so she can defraud the company and live large off the proceeds generated by her prognosis.
By the time you get to the passage set in South Africa and witness Chloe Sevigny as Sister Clara trading favors with a local plantation owner in exchange for money to help her mission, you can’t help but question Fitzgerald’s motives. Why the focus on only the most sensationalistic stories to come out of the AIDS crisis? And why are women sexually humiliated in every episode? If his intent is to “shock” us out of complacency, then to what end? Underlying the filmmaker’s soap-operatic plotlines are various dubious assertions, including a suggestion that HIV/AIDS prevention remains a priority lest the afflicted–“unrecognizable” in their reckless lack of regard for others as evidenced in the many examples provided–further corrupt the population. And since its locales are so exotic as to remain remote from the daily lives of most of those with access to this movie, the film threatens to reify the disease as one tied only to specific groups of people rather than recognize it as an alarmingly close reality for everyone.
Even more problematic is the religious slant the writer-director applies. Dividing his chapters between Buddhists, Christians, and Pagans, he chooses to conclude with Olympia Dukakis‘s voiceover as a slain Sister: “In this time, when all of mankind has a common enemy in this virus, why have we not joined together at last in order to fight it? I’m afraid of the answer. It’s you, God. Or at least the different ways we believe in you.” And with those last words spoken by a supposed angel compounding a confusing sentiment which the director leaves none too complexly explored beforehand, a troubling missionary zeal resonates. No one could argue against greater collective action to end the proliferation of this deadly disease, but Fitzgerald’s film bespeaks a dodgy humanitarianism which demands scrutiny.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum.