A hand untwines a length of green thread into three strands and plaits them into a wristband. It is the first image we see in John August’s The Nines, and it also visually encodes the film’s structure. For in keeping with a pattern also seen most recently in Three Times (2005), The Fountain (2006), The Signal (2007), and The Edge of Heaven (2007) – and which can be traced back to August’s first feature-length screenplay, Go (1999) – The Nines features three intertwining narratives whose twisted connections form a complex unity. The Nines, however, is a convoluted puzzle that proves far more challenging to tease apart than any of these other tripartite films, so get ready to be surprised, bewildered, and thrown for a six.
In its three stories, three different characters played by Ryan Reynolds find themselves torn between their affection for one woman (August regular Melissa McCarthy thrice over), and their compulsive need to be led astray by another woman (Hope Davis in triple bill).
In ‘The Prisoner’, Reynolds is Gary, a popular TV actor whose recent spate of living-it-large experiences has led to a period of house arrest, arranged by his perky publicist Margaret (McCarthy) and to be spent in the empty home of a vacationing television writer. There, next-door neighbour (and mother) Sarah (Davis) offers a welcome distraction, but it soon becomes clear that hers is not the only intrusion into Gary’s life as he finds a cryptic note written in his own handwriting (“Look for the NINES”), has a ghostly encounter, and sees the very fabric of his reality being unraveled by a series of improbable numerological coincidences.
In ‘Reality Television’, gay television writer Gavin (Reynolds) is struggling to stay true to both his creative vision and his lead actress Melissa (McCarthy) as he shepherds the pilot of a new telemystery, ‘Knowing’, through the post-production process – all under the critical gaze of studio executive Susan (Davis) and a reality television crew who are documenting his every (mis)step.
In ‘Knowing’, when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, videogame designer Gabriel (Reynolds) leaves his wife Mary (McCarthy) and their mute daughter Noelle (Elle Fanning) behind with the family digicam as he goes searching for help – but when he finds it in the form of lone hiker Sierra (Davis), he gets much more than he was bargaining for.
The Nines is an utterly confounding enigma where realities alter, identities blur, minds are messed with – and the solution, when it comes, is a transcendent paradox that satisfies without tying up every loose thread or closing the film off from subsequent, repeated viewings. This is unquestionably Lynchian territory, signalled from the outset by Gary’s joyride along Sunset Boulevard, and maintained by the regular irruptions of creepy irrationalitiy into the narrative(s) – but this is also a cinematic update of Luigi Pirandello’s celebrated modernist play Six Characters in Search of an Author, using the mystery genre to dramatise the creative process of filmmaking itself, as well as the fantasies and anxieties that inform it.
Does it help knowing that the domicile which Gary and Gavin variously inhabit is John August’s actual house, or that Melissa McCarthy really is a long-time friend and protge of the writer/director (in whose first short film, God, she played a woman who meets the Creator), or that August is gay (and has a daughter), or that the film’s second part is based closely on August’s own experiences as show-runner on a TV series that was doomed to be pulled? Probably – but as well as being August’s film clef, The Nines also boasts fluidly ingenious writing, truly versatile performances, some very fancy visuals, a gripping set of stories, a surprising lack of violence, and more brain-bending stimulus than all of this year’s Hollywood blockbusters put together. Only the exposition in the closing third, however necessary, comes over as remotely clumsy. All else is sheer (if perplexing) pleasure.
I’m giving this four-and-a-half stars or, on a decimal scale, nine, as befits a film so concerned with the incomplete, the flawed, the abandoned and the forgotten. Sometimes a product’s creative integrity requires that it not quite attain a ten – but when it comes to the cinema of big ideas, The Nines is as close to divine perfection as you are likely to get.