Clash of themes offers mixed success
, 27 Nov 2009
The Ninth Configuration has a big theme, the biggest: a debate on the existence or not of God. But its loose, confused narrative and, frankly, pitiful depiction of mental illness distracts from the central thesis and opens the film up to ridicule.
The film opens as a new commanding officer arrives at an army mental health facility, incongruously housed in a Gothic castle in the Pacific north west, which looks every inch like the Budapest set it actually is. Colonel Kane (Stacey Keach) is a psychiatrist with an open approach to mental health; his patients are given free run of the asylum and have access to him at any time.
Kane's orders are to weed out the soldiers who are faking their condition to get out of Vietnam service but his interest is soon drawn to his only non-military patient, Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), a NASA astronaut who freaked out on the launchpad.
It is the dialogue between these two men that dominates the film's core concept. Kane argues that the good in the world demonstrates the existence of God, while Cutshaw counters that all good deeds are inherently selfish and thus cannot prove the existence of God. He challenges Kane to come up with an example of a truly altruistic act. For much of the film, Kane is unable to do so.
But, as the darkness in Kane's past is unravelled and the true mission in the asylum becomes clear, so Kane is presented with a chance to prove his theory but not before some shocking revelations and action.
This central debate is fascinating and beautifully written, with some well-posed character contradictions - the icily logical Kane supports the existence of God while the passionate and fiery Cutshaw takes the humanist approach. But the pairings' discussions are too few and come too late in the film, the opening two-thirds of which plays as a completely inappropriate pantomime farce.
Blatty makes clear in the story that the army suspect many of the patients are faking their condition but, as a viewer, you are hard pressed to spot someone who isn't pretending. Every patient manifests his insanity in the broadest of terms; there's the soldier with multiple personalities, mostly female, which is really just a license to dress up; and Jason Miller's lieutenant, who is adapting the works of Shakespeare for dogs, is just a commentary on studio machinations, not a psychosis; while Robert Loggia blacks up to perform an Al Jolson routine or pops on a spacesuit to pretend he is on Venus.You half expect someone to walk on and claim they are Napoleon.
Nowhere do we see a thousand-yard stare or the shattered psyche of a shell-shock victim. This is mental illness as portrayed by someone who thinks madness is little more than an indulgence of the ego, like summer camp for grown-ups who want to be children. There is little of the real horror of insanity on display.
Worst of all, it gets in the way of the good ideas. We spend so much time trying to establish the point of the soldiers' aping that we almost miss the main point, which has to rely on cutaways to Gothic religious imagery and symbolic storms to remind us what the film is really about.
Once we have got past the pratfalls and sight gags, the film has some more confusion for us. In the final sequences, Kane commits what he claims is an altruistic act and Cutshaw accepts it at face value despite the fact it is manifestly not selfless: the act also serves the purpose of cleansing Kane's conscience, therefore proving Cutshaw's point about selfishness driving any good deed.
The Ninth Configuration contains fascinating ideas and interesting debate but is dragged down by a tasteless treatment of mental health and failed internal logic.
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