Many readers of Christian suspense will have no problem envisioning a screen adaptation of a Ted Dekker novel. Dekker, whose novel Thr3e is the basis for this movie, writes fiction in the same vein as Frank Peretti, which amounts to heavy doses of horror/thriller elements along with an examination of his characters' spiritual struggles.
Thr3e follows the story of Kevin Parson, a full-time seminary student struggling, we think, with only his thesis until he's targeted by a stalker who may be the infamous Riddle Killer, or RK. So notorious is RK that he is profiled in a nonfiction bestseller by police psychologist Jennifer Peters, who believes Kevin may hold the keys to the criminal's undoing.
Kevin, meanwhile, is forced to confront his emotionally dysfunctional and physically abusive upbringing as he turns his thoughts toward the childhood bully whose menacing antics seem to eerily foreshadow those of RK. In eluding his stalker and making sense of his past, Kevin is assisted by long-time friend Samantha, whose insights into the case seem alarmingly accurate and mysterious.
There's little else a film critic can say here without revealing Thr3e's big twist. So we'll offer only this one storyline-related caution: For viewers to enjoy this film, they will need to accept a sleight-of-hand narrative technique involving a mammoth red herring—that just might be one size too big to swallow.
Samantha, who is most often referred to as Sam, offers Kevin constant encouragement. Dating back to their childhood, she has been able to see past his dysfunctional upbringing to the bright, sensitive person Kevin is capable of becoming. Now, as he's pursued by a stalker, Sam's calming presence helps Kevin properly reflect on his early family life and past failings. It is rare to see a film in this genre explore a platonic cross-gender relationship, making this one shine all the brighter. Likewise, the relationship between Kevin and Jennifer is mature and respectful. While he initially distrusts her, Kevin comes to value Jennifer's compassionate words and her determined pursuit of his antagonist.
Members of law enforcement are generally depicted as competent and hard-working, a refreshing portrayal of America's finest. While the plot requires them, of course, to be a few steps behind the stalker's every move, detectives take their job seriously and are empathetic toward civilians. Jennifer goes so far as to offer her job resignation to regain Kevin's trust at a critical point in the case.
On a darker plane, the film also takes a sledgehammer to those who would dare harm and abuse children. A few of the depictions are disturbing and intense (more on that in "Violent Content") but the final "say-so" is properly one of harsh judgment.
Also of note, Sigmund Freud endures a justified backhand from Kevin's professor when he dryly intones, "Freud isn't exactly my favorite moral philosopher."
Characters drop biblical references in several key spots. In assessing her motives for writing her book, Jennifer relates that "pride cometh before a fall," a variation on Proverbs 16:18. In prompting Kevin to uncover his past sins, the killer asks him, "What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of?" (Romans 6:21). The killer writes "wages of sin" (Romans 6:23) on one of his victim's foreheads. That passage aids police as they're trying to disarm a bomb.
While speaking with Plugged In Online about the film, Ted Dekker said, "The primary battle we face in America today is over belief in God. That starts with a simple belief that there is good and evil, and that there is purpose beyond ourselves." That surely accounts for why Thr3e also contains several references, some obscurely placed, to more general teachings on sin and the Apostle Paul's discussion of dying to the old man in Romans 7. We see snippets of Kevin's seminary thesis, centered around man's three natures ("the good, the bad and the soul struggling in between"), an idea which also supplies the film's title. While most of these references are offered as asides and left undeveloped, they suggest Kevin and Sam have at least a passing familiarity with biblical text.
Indeed, the film opens with Kevin absorbing a class lecture from his seminary professor. That teacher sits on the sidelines for most of the story, but comes closer than anyone to being a spiritual beacon, or at least a sounding board. He leads a classroom discussion on the writings of Augustine of Hippo, who, the professor explains, "believed evil was beyond the reach of no man."
As Kevin struggles with writer's block, the professor encourages him to "search along the wall until you find the door," one of several lines that, while indirect, could be taken to indicate the way to salvation. The professor is also on hand at story's end, as if to sort out the thematic elements operating behind the action. He describes good and evil as a "battle we all have to struggle with, a battle we don't have the power to win on our own. ... We need the power of God." (While absolutely true, this line, because of its context within a conversation about mental illness, will be perceived by some as an oversimplification of a very complex issue.)
When Kevin suggests that Sam spend the night, he is quick to emphasize that he would sleep on the couch. The two share a deep embrace and—in flashback scenes to their childhood—kisses on the cheek.
A realistic and life-size statue of a nude woman (which we see several times and from all angles) serves as a storyline touchstone. In the killer's workshop, nude mannequins are seen bound up with duct tape. And a huge, renaissance-era painting in Kevin's apartment features tumbling nude forms (of children and adults) descending into hell.
Thr3e generally treats its violent episodes with restraint, sparing viewers the knifings and gory mutilations regularly found in its genre cousins. Still, its opening scene serves up a murder that establishes an overriding tone of gloom and terror. The episode finds Jennifer crying into a cell phone, pleading for the life of her brother, who is gagged and bound in the driver's seat of a car laced with explosives. The killer taunts Jennifer as she struggles to deactivate the bomb. Despite breaking the window with her fist (we see her bloody knuckles), her efforts are futile, and the ensuing explosion is shown in slow motion.
Subsequent bombs blast a dog to bits inside its doghouse, tear apart another car, incinerate a bus (seconds after its passengers flee) and decimate a warehouse. One of Kevin's classmates staggers into police headquarters with explosives strapped to his chest. The man's fate hangs in the balance while detectives scramble to answer the riddle that will free him before the bomb detonates.
While shootings (one is point-blank), fistfights and foot chases certainly contribute to the onscreen tension, it's the flashback scenes to Kevin being abused by his aunt that end up exerting the most emotional pressure. He's seen with mouth taped shut, crouching in a shower while being hosed down with water. It's revealed that he spent most of his childhood locked in an empty room. A neighborhood bully is shown beating him up and pulling a switchblade on him. Kevin returns the favor by knocking him out with a blow to the head delivered by an iron bar.
The killer similarly gags and chains the aunt, threatening repeatedly to shoot her and/or staple her lips together. Kevin and Sam are both shot in the leg (we again see blood). Sam is forcibly abducted. A near suicide (with a gun) is depicted.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Kevin's seminary classmate is shown exiting a seedy-looking nightclub. His body language suggests he's been drinking.
Most of Thr3e plays out in dark hallways, basements and dingy apartments—at night. Its atmosphere (owed in part to its on-location shooting in Poland) is, in short, typical for a story featuring a serial killer, and both its subject matter and ambience reminded us of that other tense number-movie, Se7en. (A few other well-known thrillers immediately come to mind, too, but naming them would give away too much about this plot.)
Thus, fans of the contemporary thriller will certainly find things they like in Thr3e, if, of course, they can get past its sometimes obvious jumps in logic. What we liked best, though, is how the film tries to dispense with the over-the-top gore, profanity, sexuality and preternatural decadence so prevalent onscreen these days any time "horror" or "suspense" even begins to enter the filmmakers' vocabulary. It's still a PG-13 terror-fest, and it even features flashes of torture and abuse, but it puts about as much distance between itself and the likes of Hostel and Summer of Sam as is possible and still retain the "thriller" label. More pertinent to this review, though, is a discussion of Thr3e's spiritual components—an issue raised mostly by the fact that it's based on a Ted Dekker book, produced by Christian studio Namesake Entertainment and distributed by Fox Faith. Without question, viewers can find a thread of the spiritual here, in particular, a focus on the struggle between good and evil. But the serial killer component far outweighs any biblically based theology. So much so that one could easily view this movie as a standard indie thriller, missing entirely the author's and director's oft-stated attempts to convey a Christian worldview.
God and His saving, healing power are given bookend nods and we won't shy away from giving the film handsome credit for inserting them. But there's no way to get around the fact that they feel disconnected from the horror that happens in between. Will the study guides tagged to accompany Thr3e's video release help sort out its more oblique bits? Most likely. But we're left with two big questions: Should a movie be considered spiritually significant just because it explores the topic of good and evil? And should families give extra slack to a murder- and mayhem-obsessed story because it ends with the line, "We need the power of God"?