3 Needles is Thom Fitzgerald's second film about AIDS. Even more than the first, which was The Event (2003), this one is about God, and about Fitzgerald's own spiritual journey. The three stories here, entitled "The Buddhists," "The Christians" and "The Pagans," all possess a macabre undercurrent, a despoiling of innocence, with the last the most gruesome of the lot. Death is the lead player who never appears onscreen, but it's not the only phantom in 3 Needles: There's Fitzgerald's preachy, evangelical purpose felt mostly in the narration. Nothing is as irritating as watching a film which is little more than an exercise of ego; worse is watching one that is about as discreet in its purpose as a missionary in Africa.

Fitzgerald's grasp of the visual medium is undeniable: 3 Needles is beautifully filmed, taking full advantage of the spectacular landscapes of two of its locations, China and Africa, but the beauty feels entirely misconceived. In all three stories, characters profit from the pandemic. Only in a gritty, working-class Montreal does the writer-director find a fitting metaphor for the immoral acts of his protagonists. Lead performances by Chloë Sevigny as a missionary in "The Pagans" and by Stockard Channing as a waitress in "The Christians" lack nuance, no doubt the result of Fitzgerald's one-note screenplay. Lucy Liu as the star blood smuggler in "The Buddhists" is the only spark in this perplexing segment and in the entire humdrum movie. Fitzgerald's screenplay is unnecessarily obtuse, clouding the motives of the main characters and concealing the identity of the narrator until the final scene. It opens with a striking sequence in Africa, which has nothing to do with AIDS, and leads immediately and inexplicably to China.

Fitzgerald's skill as a writer-director was evident in his first feature, The Hanging Garden (1997), a delightfully offbeat story about a gay man who returns home to Nova Scotia for his sister's wedding. (Fitzgerald is American but he lives in Nova Scotia.) In 3 Needles, Fitzgerald displays the same talent he had in The Hanging Garden for evoking precisely the emotions he wishes the audience to feel, but here he fails at the most basic cinematic task for achieving that--filming from the character's point-of-view. Dramatic structure is so entirely subverted that the audience is simply bombarded in every frame with Fitzgerald's paranoia and his sense of doom. 3 Needles is only ostensibly about the onset of the AIDS pandemic: Like the proselytizer, Fitzgerald uses the story as a device to bring his audience to his God. It's a terrible form of manipulation, and audiences will undoubtedly be repelled by it.