Ever had trouble in a casual conversation explaining the plot of a film you’ve recently watched? Try recounting what happens in The Ninth Configuration and you’re liable to end up in a gibbering, tongue-tied mess on the floor. A uniquely original take on the manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder, it tiptoes around maintaining a tonal consistency, oscillating from laugh-out-loud farce to a dark, yet strangely poignant, existentialist study. It also, somehow, manages to feature the most unnerving and extraordinary bar confrontation ever committed to celluloid. To say that it’s incredibly difficult to categorise would be an understatement, yet this really shouldn’t put you off viewing.
Rarely does a film thrust you into such an oddly emotional head space, and this is something that hasn’t been lost on the number of loyal supporters it’s gained through its years in the cinematic wilderness (Mark Kermode is a one such enthusiastic advocate). Keen to appease the film’s fanbase, distributor Second Sight has done a really excellent transfer job here. A mysterious, remote castle, seemingly floating fairytale-like in the clouds during the film’s opening, acts as a military insane asylum and houses a colourful assortment of unhinged characters. Stepping in to assist the psychiatrists is one Colonel Kane (Stacy Keach), a former member of a United States Marine Corps special unit who has dedicated his post-service life to helping those in psychological need.
Kane is happy to indulge the most surreal of requests from the patients – one puts in a serious and heartfelt request to stage Hamlet, exclusively recast with dogs – but there’s a haunted figure whom Kane really takes a shine to in the form of a former astronaut named Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) who bailed during a countdown on a mission to the moon. As Kane delves into his subject’s fraught psyche, the astronaut himself counters, suggesting his confidant may not be all he appears to be. Directed and written by The Exorcist scribe William Peter Blatty, the film’s title suggests a journey into the realms of horror. While it initially appears to flirts with that genre (particularly evident in deeply imposing Gothic location in which the majority of the film takes place) the only apparent similarities it shares with Blatty’s earlier, more famous work is the crisis of faith both Kane and Cutshaw bond over and investigate.
The two leads bring a sensitivity and profundity to the madness swirling around them and Keach is fantastic in a role which is later echoed in that of the central character from Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Wilson will also be a revelation to a latter day audience who best know him from his turn in TV’s The Walking Dead. Both are joined by some unforgettable turns from a roster of famed 70s and 1980s character actors (the late, great Robert Loggia daubed in blackface and miming along to Al Jolson really has to be seen to be believed) in a resolutely offbeat film which offers a richly rewarding and affecting viewing experience if you’re willing to embrace it’s esoteric flourishes.