There are 23 letters in both Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s name and George Herbert Walker Bush’s name. The earth’s axis tilts at an angle of 23.5 degrees (and five is the total of two plus three). Human beings receive 23 chromosomes from each parent. Charles Manson was born on Nov. 12 (11 plus 12 equals 23).
It starts out like any good conspiracy theory: Practically everything in life can be reduced or related to the number 23. For some people, this phenomenon is more than a coincidence; it’s a curse. The 23 enigma overwhelms their lives, driving them to distraction, insanity and even violence.
Walter Paul Sparrow wakes up on the morning of his birthday—which happens to be Feb. 3—oblivious to the significance of 23. But his blissful ignorance doesn’t last long. On the job as an animal control officer, Walter gets bitten by a stray dog, which makes him late to pick up his wife, Aggie, from work. And that’s where his trouble with 23 begins. (Or so he thinks.) Waiting for Walter, Aggie ducks into a used book store and picks up a tattered paperback titled The Number 23: A Novel of Obsession, by an author named Topsy Kretts. Having skimmed most of the book, Aggie decides to buy it for Walter as a birthday present.
The tome’s introduction warns, “All the characters in this book are fictitious, and anyone finding a resemblance to any person, living or dead, should proceed no further.” And, of course, Walter does find a resemblance to someone—himself. Soon, he’s overwhelmed by the recurrence of the number 23 in his life. His name, his wedding date, his address—they all add up to 23. As the main character in the novel turns more and more violent, Walter becomes increasingly disturbed. And when the story ends without resolution, Walter finds himself near panic and begins to believe the book isn’t fictional���and that real crimes have been committed as a result of the number 23 obsession. He’s terrified that he’s got the sickness himself.
The Number 23 is a taut and twisted tale that flashes back and forth between the movie’s main characters—Walter and Aggie—and the book’s main characters—Fingerling and Fabrizia. To make things even more tense (or confusing, depending on how you look at it), Fingerling and Fabrizia are played by the same actors as their frame-story counterparts. And as Walter delves deeper into the mystery of the number 23, things in both stories get creepier and bloodier, until the tales finally merge to create the film’s climax.
Most often, Walter tries to set a good example for his teenage son, Robin, even when that means making hard—and sacrificial—choices. Likewise, Aggie’s relationship with her husband is one of unconditional love, complemented by respectful challenges as Walter’s obsession grows.
While highlighting the importance of close, loving relationships, the film speaks honestly about the far-reaching damage that can be done by unloving words and actions. The last five minutes make a strong—even biblical—statement about the relationship between destiny and choice, what real justice is and the duty we all have to live with integrity. “Maybe it’s not the happiest of endings, but it’s the right one,” Walter narrates.
In a discussion of the 23 phenomenon, a professor explains that there are 22 chapters in Revelation, and that “we all know how that ends.” Numbers 32:23 appears, written out onscreen (“Be sure that your sin will find you out”). Part of Psalm 23 is read at a funeral.
Philosophically, the film explores the idea of fate. Walter constantly worries that he is destined to be a murderer, given his eerie commonalities with Fingerling and his growing obsession with the number 23. Fatalism is ultimately rejected, as Walter becomes convinced that he always has a choice about his behavior.
Walter mentions that he’s an Aquarius, and while doing so pooh-poohs astrological fixations (“I am living proof of the fallacy of astrology”). In a later scene, “the stars” are once again mentioned as being miserable foretellers of the future.
An illicit affair is integral to the plots of both the frame story and the novel. And we see several sex scenes where two tangled bodies are shown making sexual movements. They’re in various degrees of undress from fully clothed to fully naked. Bare shoulders, backs and legs are shown, and once, we see a woman’s breast from the side.
Those scenes alone would be enough to warrant an R rating. But they’re far from the worst The Number 23 has to offer, much of which might be most accurately expressed by combining the “Sexual Content” and “Violent Content” sections of this review. That’s because Fabrizia is infatuated with pain and bondage. Reflecting her feelings, Fingerling says, “Sex and death—what a turn-on.” With fleeting, stylized images, she’s shown to thrive sexually on news of his detective tales which involve suicide and murder. We see Fingerling tying and handcuffing her to the bed. We see her grope and grapple with him in the room in which a suicide happens. She asks him to pretend he has a knife, and seductively says, “I know you’re going to hurt me.” (Variations on the scene are repeated two or three times.) Indeed, Fabrizia is so engrossed in merging the idea of danger and death with sex that when Fingerling goes on leave from his job and doesn’t bring his gun home, she is temporarily uninterested in having sex with him.
One of the stylistic elements that sets apart the novel’s narrative is that most of its women are shown only in lingerie—no matter if there’s any contextual reason for them to be dressed that way. When one of them commits suicide by jumping from a window, her dead body is shown with her slip hiked up above her panties.
Elsewhere, Walter hides (from Aggie) the fact that Robin is making out with a girl in the living room. He (sort of) makes up for it when he later admonishes his son, “Robin, she’s a good girl. Make sure she stays that way.” A woman comes on to Walter at a party, asking him to “wag his tail” with her in the bathroom. He refuses.
Bloodstained typewriter paper gives way to a dog sinking its teeth into Walter’s arm. But that’s just the beginning. Crafted to visually represent the murder stories in 1950s-era detective magazines, The Number 23 traffics heavily in murder and suicide. More often than not, before a scene concludes there’s a dead body lying on the ground in a pool of blood. An oft-executed variation is a dead body that’s been stabbed repeatedly in bed, so that the abdomen and bedclothes are a bloody mess.
Throats are slit in graphic fashion. Wrists likewise. Blood spatters from self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Slow-motion lets a scene of a man falling from a window linger. Over the course of the film, viewers are subjected to no fewer than six suicide scenes and seven murder scenes, not including a murder-montage. The fact that some of these bloody scenes take place within nightmarish dreams or memories does nothing to lessen their emotional or psychological effect.
A recurring theme in the narrative is to say that the number 23 has “gone after” someone or has “killed again.” One character writes the words “kill her” on his wrist in ink. As Robin and Walter pursue answers, they dig a hole and uncover a skull. Walter once holds a pointed letter opener to Aggie’s throat (but doesn’t end up hurting her).
Close to a dozen f-words, and about half that many s-words. Milder profanity includes “b–ch, “d–n” and “h—.” God’s name is misused.
Alcohol is served at a party. Walter drinks at home. Several characters in the novel smoke cigarettes.
I’ve always been intrigued by storylines with clever twists and plots that mess with your mind just a bit. I love the challenge of figuring out what’s going on before the characters onscreen do. That doesn’t mean The Number 23 is now at the top of my favorites list, though. And it doesn’t matter a whit that it ends with a strong ethical message about taking responsibility for one’s actions and setting a good example for one’s children.
Yes, the film’s conclusion is a huge relief, both morally and psychologically. But in order to make it so, director Joel Schumacher (The Phantom of the Opera, Phone Booth) goes to great lengths to vividly portray every nook and cranny of the insanity and depravity that set the stage for it.
Suicide, murder, violent sex. There’s your 23-letter long review of The Number 23.