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Movie Review: The Number 23 – Jim Carrey’s Descent Into Hell

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Hell isn’t an imaginary land of fire and brimstone, chock full of imps and demons. Hell is the darkest recesses of the human mind. Our darkest impulses, fears and sometimes memories dwell there. Although The Number 23, directed by Joel Schumacher, is nominally about the numeral of the title, it is also about the main character's descent into hell.

Jim Carrey is Walter Sparrow, aptly named as he works as a local animal control officer. He is somewhat melancholy but otherwise well-adjusted — that is, until he is bitten by a dog named Ned. Ned leads Sparrow to the grave of a Laura Tollins. Arriving late to meet his wife, Agatha Sparrow (Virginia Madsen), Walter is presented with a birthday gift of a book "of obsession" called "The Number 23". Thus begins Sparrow's descent into psychosis. As he reads through the book, it is seemingly based on his own life with one important exception — it details a murder that has yet to occur.

Thankfully the mythology surrounding the number 23 is kept to a bare minimum. At the beginning a series of facts connecting the number to a series of momentous (in a bad way) events in human history sets the tone, but apart from a sketchy outline midway through, we are spared the gory details. Belief in the mystic significance of the number 23 stems from a modern chaos religion called Discordianism which has the Greek goddess of discord, Eris as its principle deity. Twenty-three is considered, all at the same time, sacred (to Eris), lucky, unlucky, sinister, sacred to unholy gods (Cthulhu Mythos), and strange. Sparrow’s question, “Is it god?”, is thus answered; 23 is a corollary of the Discordian law of fives in that its properties are divisible five different (and sometimes mutually exclusive) ways.

One of the things that immediately strikes you about this film is that Carrey looks every bit the part as Sparrow. Ace Ventura and The Mask seem like a world away as Carrey gives a consummate performance as a deeply disturbed character. Fingerling, the anti-hero of the book, is however perhaps a dark allusion to The Mask. In a way Carrey’s journey from the fun-loving Mask to the psychotic Fingerling is indicative of his progress as an actor. Making the transition from such wildly different genres successfully shows a versatility which should surely be applauded. Carrey’s supports all perform admirably in their often multiple roles alongside him (incidentally, the multi-parting is not a fact that is accidental or unrelated to the plot).

This strong use of suggestion is something that will keep you on your toes if you are one of those people who likes to beat the plot to the end. For example, Ned’s bite is seemingly innocuous in the beginning, a plot device to bring Sparrow and book together, but the fact that Ned bit Sparrow begins to assume allegorical importance as the plot unravels. It has been asserted that the plot twists are easy to unravel, which they are for a well-trained critical eye, but I rather suspect that the casual movie-goer, who switches off their brain at the popcorn stand, will find slightly more suspense in the plot. Immersing yourself in the character of Sparrow is the key to actually enjoying this film; ignore the wider world and follow the twists and turns of his inner psyche and you will be genuinely disturbed.

At the end however you maybe left feeling a little disappointed as the movie suddenly switches tack from descent-into-hell toward a more traditional tale of redemption. One feels that the story perhaps deserves a darker end but the courage was lacked to prosecute this, which ultimately is a shame.

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About Darrell Goodliffe

  • MCH

    On a scale of 1-10, I gave the movie a 6, and Carrey’s performance an 8.