The Nines follows three separate but interconnected stories, with the same three actors recurring: Ryan Reynolds, Melissa McCarthy, and Hope Davis. (3 X 3 = 9.) Gary, a TV actor, is put under house arrest; Gavin, a TV showrunner, struggles to put a pilot together; Gabriel, a video games designer, leaves his wife and daughter in their broken down car to get help. At times unsettling, funny, dramatic, philosophical, meta, it feels, above all, autobiographical. The writer-director John August is a screenwriter who frequently works with Tim Burton (his other best-known work is on the Charlie’s Angels films) and has most obviously put himself into the middle segment, ‘Reality Television’. There are also other real world parallels - a large chunk of the film is set in August’s real house, August is friends with McCarthy, who plays herself in ‘Reality Television’ - but more importantly the film is about creators and their responsibilities to not only their creations but to themselves. August is not only Gary/Gavin/Gabriel (hereafter referred to as G.), each of whom have creative jobs, but the creator of them and this film. He’s literally the one behind the camera asking Gavin questions. If G. is a 9, John August is the 10.
While the protagonists are surrogates for himself, and this is obviously a deeply personal film for August, it has resonances for everyone. In Lacanian terms, G. is experiencing méconnaissance, the misrecognition that begins in the mirror phase, when the infant self-identifies with his reflection, and continues throughout life, sustaining the ego’s sense of autonomy. There’s a wonderful moment of this at the beginning of The Nines when Gary looks in the mirror and realises he lacks a belly button. Does that mean he’s never been born? That he’s unborn?
There’s a fascinating analysis of how this process is dramatised in Robert Heinlein’s time travel story “By His Bootsraps” in David Wittenberg’s book Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative. Witenberg also sees in the story’s ending, where Bob Wilson realises that all of the time travelling visitors he’s met are him, the idea that the self is not an object but a history, a narrative. The self is also a reader, and in this realisation catches up to what the audience has long realised.In this short story the subject is required to misrecognise himself in order to create the narrative; our own misrecognition serves to create our narrative, our self. G. is subconsciously constructing his own narratives to create his sense of self, perhaps most obviously in Parts 2 and 3 where he is the subject of reality and scripted TV shows respectively, but when he recognises himself for what he truly is and catches up with our audience perspective, the constructed self disintegrates, potentially taking the whole of his world with it.
This brings the film in on another key theme of Heinlein’s, the narcissistic solipsism of “They” (in where mental patient believes he is one of few “real” beings) and “-All You Zombies-” (where a time traveller becomes his own father, mother, and everyone else in the story). “I know where I came from,” says the protagonist in the latter story, “but where did all you zombies come from?” August is considerably more compassionate than Heinlein, as is G. He has to some extent, literally or figuratively in the construction of his narrative/self, created these other people and so bears some paternalistic instinct towards them. He also very well may be suffering from psychosis - he loves these creations, these constructs, so much so that he wants to join them, wants to be them, and ends up forgetting what he truly is.
But the aim can not be to leave this fantasy and rejoin what’s “real” - in Lacanian terms, the Real is traumatic, something that we are unable to integrate into our understanding of reality (something that forces us to question our misrecognition, perhaps?), and this is expressed in the film. Gavin is having an argument with Melissa, but tells her he doesn’t want to do it on camera. She responds: “No, because you can’t control it. Your little puppets are off their strings, running around. Saying things you didn’t write. Reality terrifies you.” Instead the purpose of psychoanalysis is “traversing the phantasy” - we shouldn’t confuse reality and fiction but instead we realise what element of reality is ‘transfunctionalized’ through fantasy, seen through a fictional mode. The danger is not that G. lives through fantasy, but that G. has lost the ability to recognise which parts of his reality are perceived fictionally, and that this threatens his very existence - “He’s an actor. If nobody’s watching him, he doesn’t really exist.”
(The Nines has another other major sci-fi comparison, with virtual reality films. Some of the film’s most striking moments incorporate this idea - that stepping over an arbitrary chalk line will destroy the universe, that everyone has numbers floating over their heads Sims-style, and rewinding on a home movie to discover that your universe is actually a fictional TV show. An excellent book that’s sort of on this subject is Slavoj Zizek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real. You might recognise Zizek, a Lacanian Marxist, from The Pervert’s Guide to… films; here he juxtaposes The Matrix and other Hollywood examples with the events of 9/11.)
The Nines is full of these big ideas yet keeps them ticking under the surface, remaining perfectly accessible to a casual viewer. The triple performances from Reynolds and McCarthy are a go-to for me whenever someone questions their dramatic acting abilities. It’s one of those “mind-blowers” that are destined to be discovered and rediscovered in the years to come.