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Film / The Number 23

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The Number 23 is a 2007 American psychological thriller film directed by Joel Schumacher, starring Jim Carrey, Virginia Madsen, Danny Huston and Logan Lerman.

The plot revolves around Walter Sparrow (Carrey) and his obsession with the "23 enigma", an esoteric belief that all incidents and events are directly connected to the number 23, some permutation of the number 23, or a number related to 23.

This is the second film to pair Schumacher and Carrey, the first being Batman Forever. This is also Carrey's first suspense thriller, and while it was derided by critics for being confusing and unengaging, it was a box office hit.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abandoned Hospital: The Nathaniel Institute.
  • Amnesiac Dissonance: Learning about his dark past brings Walter close to committing suicide.
  • Arc Number: The number 23, obviously.
  • Asshole Victim: Laura Tollins was this, for driving Walter into a homicidal rage after claiming she never loved him and mocking his father's suicide. At least, if that's what really happened?
  • Bittersweet Ending: Sure, the murder mystery was solved, and the man wrongfully imprisoned for it was set free. But Walter turns himself in to the police, and is awaiting sentencing for criminal homicide.
    Walter Sparrow: Maybe it's not the happiest of endings, but it's the right one. Some day I'll be up for parole, and we can go on living our lives. It's only a matter of time. Of course, time is just a counting system. Numbers with meaning attached to them...isn't it?
  • Crash-Into Hello: Walter and Agatha first meet when he bumps into her in the street and she drops her cake.
  • Driven to Suicide: The Suicide Blonde, Fingerling, Widow Dobkins, Walter's Father, Sirius Leary, and Walter himself on two separate occasions (one bungled, the other interrupted).
  • For Want Of A Nail: Walter laments this at the beginning of the film: if he hadn't agreed to take Agatha's cake to the holiday office party without her, the dispatcher Sybil wouldn't have drunkenly thrown herself at him; if he hadn't turned down Sybil's advances so harshly, she wouldn't have been angry at him the next day and sent him on another call just as his shift ended; if he hadn't been sent on that last call, he wouldn't have been bitten by Ned, and he wouldn't have been late to meet Agatha; if he hadn't been late to meet his wife, she wouldn't have had time to browse in the used bookstore...where she found a copy of The Number 23.
  • Happily Married: Unlike Walter's own parents, Walter and his wife, Agatha, are very much in love with (and faithful to) each other.
  • Hell Hound: Ned's a fairly ordinary dog, but he still fits the "guardian" flavor of this trope to a tee.
  • Hereditary Curse: Walter's own parents both died when he was young, with his father committing suicide rather than face his problems (possibly due to the influence of the number 23). Walter seems fated to do the same at the end, attempting to take his own life by walking into traffic. However, he stops himself when he sees his son watching him, breaking the curse.
  • It Was Here, I Swear!: The skull Walter digs up is gone by the time he returns with the police.
  • The Killer in Me: The murderer of Laura Tollins, who wrote a fictionalized account of his crime in "The Number 23", turns out to be Walter himself.
  • Kill Me Now, or Forever Stay Your Hand: Agatha does this to Walter when he is convinced he will kill her in his next paroxysm.
  • Meaningful Name: Many examples:
    • Walter's name begins with the 23rd letter of the alphabet (which is the same letter that ends his last name).
    • Walter's wife is named Agatha, which means "Good". Despite a few false leads, she's ultimately the most morally upright character in the movie (and also convinces Walter of his own goodness).
    • The dispatcher who sends Walter on his last call (where he meets Ned for the first time) is named Sybil, after the oracles of Classical mythology. The name is also associated with a character who was famously mentally ill, had a Dark and Troubled Past, and suffered from bouts of amnesia — possibly foreshadowing a number of reveals about Walter himself (he has a dark past, once suffered brain damage, and has memory loss).
    • Ned, the black-and-white bulldog who watches over Laura Tollin's grave, is so-named because of his habit of "guarding" the dead.note  Also, N=14+E=5+D=4=23.
    • The professor who explains the number 23 phenomenon to Walter is Miles Phoenix, after the mythological bird associated with death, rebirth, and renewal — a process Walter (symbolically) undergoes twice.
    • The hospital where Walter was rehabilitated after his suicide attempt, and granted a new lease on life, is the Nathaniel Institute, from the biblical name meaning "Gift of God".
    • The doctor from the mental hospital who helped rehabilitate Walter (and later went mad himself) is named "Sirius Leary", which means "Dog, Beware" (or, when reversed, "Beware Dog") — an obvious reference to Ned, who both physically attacks Walter and directs him to his past crimes (which Leary himself also does).
    • Kyle Flinch, the man who was jailed for Laura Tollins's murder, is indeed skittish. Also, his name has no connection to the number 23, which signifies (to Walter) that he is innocent.
    • The stone staircase in the park next to the spot where Laura Tollins's body is buried is named The Steps To Heaven.
    • The hotel in the third act where Walter wrote "The Number 23" is the King Edward Hotel; King Edward VIII was born on June 23, 1894.
  • Mistaken for Murderer: Kyle Flinch is falsely arrested and jailed for Laura's murder. This is rectified in the movie's final act.
  • Never Found the Body: Laura Tollins. Subverted in the movie's final act.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Both Laura Tollins and her fictional counterpart, Fabrizia, have a fetish for violence, and liked to roleplay with knives in the bedroom. Fabrizia even has Fingerling take her to an apartment where a woman killed herself so they can have sex. (Incident, the latter leads to Fabrizia's lover being falsely arrested for her murder, as he believes that the crime scene is an elaborate roleplay and handles the murder weapon.)
  • Number Obsession: Walter Sparrow finds himself obsessed and fixated on the "23 enigma", a belief that all incidents and events are directly connected to the number 23, some permutation of the number 23, or a number related to 23. The in-universe explanation for the number's importance is that 2 divided by 3 is .666... i.e. the Number of the Beast.
  • Number of the Beast: Issac French explains that the number 23 is considered evil because 2 divided by 3 results in .666...6666 etc. (which would actually be shortened to .667, if we're going to three decimal places).
  • Once More, with Clarity: A good deal of the third act of the film is spent on replaying the events of Topsy Kretts' book as envisioned by Walter... except this time using Walter's real experiences pre-amnesia.
    • The young Fingerling seeing Mrs. Dobkins' corpse in the bed and the subsequent suicide of her killer is repeated with the young Walter seeing his mother's corpse and the subsequent suicide of his father.
    • Fingerling's entire relationship with Fabrizia, his jealousy over Dr. Miles Phoenix, and his killing Fabrizia and framing Phoenix for it is repeated with Walter's relationship with Laura Tollins, his jealousy over Kyle Flinch, and his killing Laura and framing Flinch for it.
    • The Suicide Blonde ranting over the number 23 to Fingerling and her subsequent suicide by jumping from her room is repeated with Walter ranting over the number 23 to himself and his subsequent (failed) suicide by jumping from his room.
  • One-Book Author: Both in and out-of-universe: in-universe, Topsy Kretts/Walter has written only this book; out-of-universe, the movie's failure resulted in it being Fernley Phillips' only writing credit to date.
  • Red Herring: The film's third act has this in the form of a false Reveal before the actual reveal. Walter suspects that Agatha is the book's writer and the film then replays flashbacks that seem to point out to her. Of course, for the true reveal, see The Reveal below.
  • Room Full of Crazy: The hotel room where Walter wrote the last chapter of the book—literally. It has a fictional counterpart in the Suicide Blonde's apartment, where she scrawled out all of her life's connections to the number 23.
    • Also, Walter's old room at the mental hospital.
  • Sanity Slippage: The number itself is implied to cause this, as "victims" become obsessed with the numerical patterns in their own lives and the world around them.
  • Sharpshooter Fallacy: The entire concept of everything adding up to the number 23 (and being so significant) runs on this, but is justified in that Walter is suffering from a terrible obsession, so logic and reason don't really enter the story for the sake of preserving the drama.
    • The intro demonstrates this; all of the examples are clearly done by working backwards from what it takes to get them to 23, and they're all following completely different rules to get there.
  • Sue Donym: The titular book is written by "Topsy Kretts".
  • The Reveal: The author who wrote the book "The Number 23" is Walter himself.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: Walter Sparrow is Topsy Kretts.
  • Tattooed Crook: Fingerling.
  • Wham Line: "You wrote [the book], Walter. You did."
  • Writing About Your Crime: "Topsy Kretts" is really Walter himself, and the suicide blonde actually represents a girl he murdered.