Mr. Nobody Untangled, Decrypted, and Explained
Mr. Nobody is a profound discussion about familial rifts and the chaos inflicted, from the perspective of a nine year old.
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I’ve watched this movie 3 times in the past month. So I’m up to five watches right now? And when you run a website that talks about new movies, and people are constantly asking we talk about more and more movies… let me put it to you this way. This one movie, log jammed, THiNC. entirely. Completely. So thanks for that Joseph D Klemm for that! hahah. Now, if you know anything about THiNC… and I’m doubting you do. We are an up and coming website that discusses movies that make people think. We dissect them. Tease them apart. Try and put them back together again. So to learn that Mr. Nobody tree-shredded my site? Basically means the movie literally (BY DEFINITION) has to be amazing. Has to be.

If you’ve never heard of the movie, it actually was quite big when it released, but it was so difficult to understand, and so convoluted? it really back-burnered quickly, and ultimately bombed at the box. But with stars Jared Leto (playing Nemo, who you know from like a million movies I’m sure), Sarah Polley (playing Elise, who you might know from Dawn of the Dead), and Diane Kruger (playing Anna, who was huge in Inglorious Basterds, National Treasure, etc), you know the movie is going to be well acted anyway. But it is the movie’s structure, or apparent lack thereof that really throws the clutch on this cinematic technicolor. It’s one hot steaming jumble of splices, reverses, cut backs, all with alternative realities, possibilities, switches and unhingings. It’s a really confusing two hours and twenty one minutes.

But I think Mr. Nobody actually explains itself quite nicely. We know why we are a jumbled mess. We get told explicitly what the film is up to. So that is good. We don’t have to guess there. But we aren’t really cut any slack when it comes to piecing the movie back together again. And that is where my head exploded over the past month as I tried and tried to identify every eventuality, and solve the complete puzzle from start to finish of the movie that is Mr. Nobody.

Alright, let’s be honest here, if you haven’t seen the movie and you read this… it’s not going to really spoil anything. Why? Because you’ll be so lost with my retelling of it that it won’t even matter. But, if you want to experience these sequences as Jaco Van Dormael originally intended? You should watch the movie, then come back, and check out this walkthrough. Ok? Because you are going to need the help in understanding what it is that you just watched. I promise.

THiNC. Mr. Nobody Timelines

So, in order to keep track of the various intricate timelines of the movie Mr. Nobody, I found myself outlining each fragments into a cohesive whole. Each scene, sort of needed a home, a logical order within Nemo’s life to lock into place. You might find it helpful to open up the larger version I am including here by clicking the image, and following the paths as we discuss the ins and outs of what happened throughout Mr. Nobody. You should notice right away, that most of the movie takes place within the Nemo/Father thread, not with his mother. The other intriguing detail you can see by just looking at the over all image of the paths? That the only quasi-happy ending is within the Mother thread. Alright, here is the outline:

Mr. Nobody Untangled, Decrypted, and Explained

Mr. Nobody Untangled, Decrypted, and Explained

As I said above, Mr. Nobody doesn’t follow anyone’s narative rules for how movies ought to work. It is also the reason it bombed at the box office. But the entirety of this movie hinges on a single moment in Nemo’s life. Little Nemo, standing on a train station platform, between both his parents. His parents are divorcing. And there, on the platform, his parents ask him which way he wants to go. And so, little Nemo, standing there and staring into the vast unknown before him, is just attempting to make the world’s most difficult decision that will effect him for the rest of his life. If you’ve seen the Denzel Washington movie called Deja Vu, you will understand the concept. So, from here on out, I’ll lay out the different possibilities that little Nemo will attempt to reconcile and decide between.

Mr. Nobody Untangled, Decrypted, and Explained

There are really only three possibilities that Nemo investigates. Going with his father. Going with his mother. Or not making a choice at all. But within these three choices there are numerous branches and different possibiliites that spread and leap and go all over the place. The various branches actually touch other possibilities. Sometimes the players are aware of one another, because further up their line they encountered them, and if they didn’t, then they’d be oblivious as to the person or their importance. But in order to see that the internal logic of the movie works? You have to literally walk each thread through the outline and validate that each scene snaps nicely where it should. Which, you can do by re-watching the film, and following through the outline I have created for you. (You are welcome).  It isn’t as intricate as my Dark Family Tree infographic but it will serve its purposes for us today.

Mr. Nobody Untangled, Decrypted, and Explained

Mr. Nobody – Nemo Goes With His Father

Standing there on the platform, Nemo chooses to go with his mother, he runs after the train at the last minute, and his shoelace breaks (due to a cost savings effort at a shoe plant – because while this movie majors in multi-verse potentialities, it minors in chaos theory), he stumbles, and doesn’t make it onto the train with his mother. 

The absolute, most difficult aspect of this movie to decipher? Hands down, was this section. Three love interests. Elise, Anna, and Jean. And, even multiple forks for each relationship. The bulk of Nemo’s investment down this rabbit hole is with Elise. But try as the might, they are perpetually missing each other. Nemo loves Elise, but Elise doesn’t love Nemo… and even if they do get together, she settles. And one thread shows Elise telling Nemo no after Nemo gave her a love letter. And as a result, Nemo marries the first woman he dances with in order to make Elise jealous. And even one thread shows that after Elise and Nemo marry, a fuel truck explodes and kills Elise. Or another time, Elise divorces Nemo, only for Nemo to die by drowning in his car. Please note, that it is after Elise dies in the fuel truck accident, that Nemo chooses to go to Mars to spread her ashes as she made him promise when they first met. And it is on this return trip from Mars that Nemo dies because of a meteorite destroying the ship.

Mr. Nobody Untangled, Decrypted, and Explained

Mr. Nobody – Nemo Goes With His Mother

There is only one fork in his vision of his time with his mother, and it actually comes very early on in the movie. Nemo meets Anna and Anna asks Nemo to go for a swim. Right? Simple enough. And in one branch, Nemo tells her that he doesn’t like hanging out with stupid people, offending Anna and her friends. But in the other branch, Nemo tells her he doesn’t know how to swim. The rest of this thread is the two of them trying to connect, and trying to make it work in spite of life’s circumstances. But eventually they make it work, and they marry. 

Mr. Nobody Ending Explained

Mr. Nemo, the 118 year old man narrates our adventure back through his life. But Nemo tells the journalist that has come to learn about the oldest mortal man still living that neither of them actually exist. Why? Well, because, the entirety of the movie is occurring in the mind of a nine year old standing on a train platform trying to figure out what he should do in the moment of his parents divorce and separation. It could be argued that the rest of the movie is actually irrelevant. No. That’s not the right word. The rest of the movie is a figment. But it is the figments of a poor boy, distraught by the impossible position his parents put him in.

And it is there, on the platform that Nemo realizes that going with either parent won’t work. That there has to be another way. And so Nemo leaves the platform and ultimately finds Anna, and lives his life happily with her. With this last detail in place, Nemo dies at the allotted time… and with that, the universe stops expanding, and collapses back in on itself, all the way back to the train station platform. And with that, Nemo’s complicated haze of a life solidifies and the choices work out to the perfect future he was finally able to find. He is reunited with Anna. And his parents happily reunite as well.

But What Does Mr. Nobody Mean?!

What’s funny about my laying out, arranging, the different pieces and parts of the movie is that it’s really irrelevant to the movie at large. But because I’m OCD that way, I couldn’t not do it. The things that actually mattered more to the movie, and the larger point that it was trying to make, I didn’t even cover. For example, the sections explaining Nemo’s life before he was born. The details about the leaves, the shoestring factory, and the rest. And why did I leave that out? First we have to talk a bit about chaos theory

Most people are familiar with the idea of chaos theory. Within Chaos Theory, the idea of the butterfly effect is that there is a sensitive interdependence on initial conditions, wherein a minute change of state can cause an enormous difference later on. Butterfly flaps its wings in Beijing, and it ultimately causes a tornado in St. Louis. Or what have you. This idea is riddled throughout Mr. Nobody. A shoestring manufacturer, attempting to save money, causes Nemo’s shoelace to break as he’s running on the platform to go be with his mother… thereby missing his big opportunity. One Nemo causes a leaf to blow in the window, which causes a later Nemo to drowned later on. 

But pause for a moment. I’d go much deeper into Chaos Theory, and the details of resulting actions, if it weren’t for the fact that this entire movie being the active conjecturing of a nine year old child. Nemo doesn’t really know anything about Chaos Theory! Save for maybe a small idea about the very basics of the concept. And so we are given a nine year olds perspective on the science and philosophical details surrounding an extraordinarily complex topic. This is what we need to take away from this detail about Chaos Theory… Nemo is attempting to formulaically control for all possible outcomes, including those outcomes influenced by the world’s chaos.

The movie Mr. Nobody isn’t a controlled scientific experiment that controls for all variables in a doctoral research lab (which, would be impossible anyway). This is in the mind of a nine year old kid. This movie is about the emotional trauma of divorce, and the impact it has on children being forced to make decisions their young minds can’t even comprehend, let alone decide on. 

As the nine year old Nemo stands there on the platform trying to figure out his future fates based on this one decision, his various alternative selves begin dying, failing, stopping. None of them aware that they are solely alive in the mind of a nine year old them. They don’t really exist. Until, that is, the 119 year old Nemo finally becomes self aware of the situation playing out before the audience. That he doesn’t exist. That the interviewer doesn’t exist. That none of this is real. And that soon, with the death of the last remaining possible outcome? Time will snap back to nine year old Nemo, wherein he must decide. 

I have to say, that before I started writing, I read a pile of different theories as to what the movie might possibly mean. Theories about recreation, karma, and the theory of the “Big Crunch”. And I have to say, there is a lot of room in this movie for going your own road and having the movie say what you want it to say. But as in Occam’s Razor, ultimately, the simplest possible explanation has to win out. And that is, the entire movie is held within the troubled imagination of a nine year old, attempting to make the most difficult decision he will ever make. 

Disagree? Brilliant. Tell me all about it (civilly) in the comments!

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13 Responses

  1. Kukuh Satrio Adi

    The one that Nemo drown in the car after work, isn’t it the one he’s with Anna? the previous scene shows he calls Anna after work.

  2. Nate

    I have to disagree with the idea that the most of or the whole movie is just the conjecture of a nine year old boy. Somewhat early on in the movie it is said that all human lives were omniscient before birth, and that it wasn’t until the Angels of Oblivion erased their memories that they chose their parents and were birthed. In fact, Mr. Nobody as the boy is narrating it because he said himself the Angels forgot to erase his memories. He said that even with his omniscience, it was hard to choose which parents would be his. You can imagine it would be more confusing to choose with no knowledge of anything. He doesn’t start asking questions until he is birthed and is given a limited, human body. This is when he starts out as a naive, philosophical boy that obviously loves his parents. When forced to make an impossible decision, he, with his omniscience processed in the mind a of little boy, begins to go through every possibly logical path. He uses his ‘imagination’ and empathetically experiences every possibility as if he were living them. As he gets older, you can notice a shift in his personality when his concerns change. Why can’t smoke go back in the cigarette? This is asked to emphasize a point, but in the limited mind of a boy with omniscience, it was also a genuine question. He kept asking these questions until he began to imagine what happened after he decided to stay with either parent and at that age and older, he stopped. As his mind and brain aged, he could process his omniscient perception of reality less and less efficiently. This peaked when he became a very ancient old man. Everything that did occur happened by the movie’s understanding of what would logically happen given a different decision, even the crazy fantastical scenes. After a while, you notice that it’s an artistic direction of this movie to use those disconcerting, fantastical scenes when Mr. Nobody is transitioning to the next timeline of his perception of reality. This could be understood from the beginning of the movie when the Angels are mentioned, but the movie is designed to confuse you when it doesn’t specify what is the original timeline of Mr. Nobody is. This is revealed near the end of the movie, which is as you said, is when he is at the train station making an impossible decision. Really, the only difference between your analysis of the movie and mine is that you believe a lot of the movie was an illogical figment of a kids imagination and mine was that, because of his ill-processed omniscience, he imagined an innumerable number of possibilities in order to find the happiest ending. He was only capable of having that confusing phantasmagoric experience because he was forgotten by the Angels of Oblivion. A lot of people are left confused about the whole meaning of the work, since this movie is an extreme fusion of art and philosophy. It’s really what he said at the end. All of the paths were correct paths because, in the chaos of it, it all worked itself out even if badly. Ultimately he was most happy when he was with Anna. Because of his ‘imagination’, he ran away from both of his parents and chose to wait until the Big Crunch occurred. With his omniscience, and everything turned back to the very beginning, before his birth, he was able to choose the perfect path. His parents together and Anna with him forever after. The physics and weird scenes can probably be explained as different phenomena occurring because of the interpretation of the chaos theory. Now to be fair, albeit I did a little reading, I just watched this movie. So if I got anything wrong, or if you still have a totally different opinion than mine, I’m all ears.

  3. Marion

    Thank you for the mindmap and the analysis. I watched the movie but it really didn’t sink in until the next day. Initially I thought it was a bad movie, but as I was reflecting this morning I realized this is a sleeper movie that really need s to be viewed multiple times like reading a great book to decipher the messages. I believe we get what we are ready to get from a movie. I looked at the movie from a relationship and love view. How many times have people been in love with someone but that person they were in love with didn’t love them back so we settle for what we think is safe? He loved Elise but her heart was beating for someone else so no matter how he tried to prove his love for her it would never make a difference or move the needle in regards to her being in love with him. Jean was the love/ life that we dream about and strive to achieve what society says is the typical relationship. Once we achieve it regardless of how unhappy we are we tend to just remain in the relationship because it is comfortable and it exudes the illusion of success and happiness. Anna is his true love and soul mate. How many of us have found their Anna?

    On a side note you have duplicated the “Mr. Nobody Ending Explained” section.

    I’m glad I found your website I look forward to reading your other reviews.

    • Taylor Holmes

      Thanks chief, appreciate the compliments and also the kind word informing me my fly was down! Usually, most aren’t kind at all. Glad you found it helpful. And that is a good question, how many of us have found our Anna? And by Anna, I mean, purpose, not necessarily a woman per se. Great thoughts.

  4. Katrin

    Hey thanks Taylor for your breakdown and opinion on the meaning of this movie. I just watched it last night, and although it was confusing to me, hoping it would distill down at some point, it didn’t frustrate me. Sometimes with highly cerebral movies such as this one, if it frustrates more than intrigues, it loses you and when it ends, you’re mad because it didn’t add up, lose ends were not tied up, and/or nothing explained well enough to satisfy. However, this movie continues to pique ones’ interest long after. This morning, I wanted to understand it better, and so I took to the internet. I wanted to know if it was a book first, because often a complex book with heady themes, or one that touches into science based theories, is difficult to distill properly into the format of film. The production value is so high, the presentation is beautiful and lush and detailed and authentic.

    I love your outline graphic, but I can’t see it well enough. Is there a way to enlarge it that I am missing? Or can you email it to me? I’d love to go over it because it really is worth watching again. And that’s a sign of a really good and interesting movie, it has a lot of meat on its bones. Most people don’t like that though, as the general viewer likes more obvious, 2 hr movie going satisfaction, and nothing too challenging. This one though is for the real thinkers, the ponderers, the creatives, the philosophers, the romantics. Beautiful.

  5. ayushka

    Taylor thanks for your breakdown. I have a take on the movie takes into account the mentioning of entropy, the big crunch and the angels of oblivion. I’d like to know what others think of this.

    I think the writers idea is to associate the big crunch with the reversal of entropy (i.e. reversal of time). By this, the writer means there is nothing forward of 2092, which also means all outcomes are accounted for. This serves the purpose of the 9 y.o. child considering all possibilities of outcome of the train platform decision.
    Note as well that the 9 y.o. only has use of this because he knows every possible event in each parallel timeline due to missing the memory wipe by the angels.

    If there was/is no big crunch time reversal he would have to continue assessing each possible timeline forever or until he dies in all possible timelines and never making a decision (not to be confused with making the third option of running off). But since he found out about time reversal happening in 2092 in one of the timelines, he now knows to only need to assess the timelines that go up to that time. And in order to do that there must be a version of him that exist up to the point of reversal. Finally having the knowledge of all outcomes he realizes that he is better off making the third decision of running away.

    By the way, physicists have evidence the universe is perpetually expanding. So no big crunch in our universe in case anyone who reads this freaks out.

    This movie was enjoyably challenging.

  6. Sara

    Your explanation of the chain of events made it a depressingly simple story line. (I dont mean that in any sort of negative way) I enjoyed reading your breakdown!

    I just finished the last ~20 mins after falling asleep watching it a few nights ago.

    Torn between I loved the movie and it

    As someone else commented, I think I need to let it settle before I can really decide. Did love the concept.

    Hated the part in the house with old Nemo on the TV…Dr Who rip off anyone?

  7. JT

    First time ever posting a review online but the fact that this movie was made in 2009 and we are commenting on it 10 years later says a lot about it. Thanks for your synopsis. I missed the shoelace factory part but thanks for tying up that loose end for me so I the viewer don’t also stumble. I hate it when a movie doesn’t tie up loose ends or shows a scene that never connects in some way but this one ties all the ends together and makes everything connected just like the beat of a butterfly’s wings. It’s deep, provocative, romantic, and definitely one of those movies worth watching many times but no doubt lost on the general public. I was cautioned on watching it for being too old but I’m glad I did and I think it will be a timeless movie. The cinematography seamlessly blends one scene into the next despite such disparate scenes they didn’t feel unconnected. I love chess and am often in Zugzwang so that was a cool tie in and having majored in philosophy and biology/science I found it thought provoking on both disciplines. Re-connecting with Anna captured the beauty and feelings of a deep playful inter-dependent love beyond just physical that many other movies portray. This movie is beautiful on so many levels and by far my favorite movie now.

  8. Prakhar

    “Elise divorces Nemo, only for Nemo to die by drowning in his car”

    you are wrong. It was Anna, he was married to when he drowned. Do your research properly.

  9. Mustafa

    Woah,loved the diverse takes everyone has taken.

    Now Imagine this,if time was to be going backwards,and to survive was to make sure you make all the choices that ensure that you exists,it now becomes crucial that for an 118 year old only and the oldest mortal man of what kept him going…because in every other reality he doesn’t exist.

    Therefore,just as when time is going forward,we look ahead in time to decide what we want,and make our choices accordingly…and everything that makes us afraid is simply the fear of death or truly the fear of end of possibility as life is possibility,the fear of dying before the possibility of having ever lived ….

    Therefore once you understand this crucial line in the film,weather time is going forward or reverse,the idea is simply about living a life,where death either means growing old or becoming a child again,depending on the direction of time…

    It was about making a choice where one lives fully before he faces either of the deaths in time …life representing possibility of experiences.

    And knowing everything as he has the memory not erased,life becomes an impossible decision at several conjunctures,as every choice he makes results in the death of possibility of truly living fully before dying ,or losing the love of his life and his parents separating forever …and knowing that he concludes…

    Sometime the best decision in life is to not make a choice at all,because somehow you see the universe alone knows what’s best for you ,you and I are simply the imagination of an ego and the more we try to make a choice,the more we fall in the pit of thinking we are in control.

    And Therefore,the child now knowing that fully,makes the decision to face the unknown and the uncertain because Life is not worth it unless it’s a playground…

    And it was because the child decides to have the courage to face the uncertain ,he truly experienced life and it was this possibility alone that brought into existence a universe where not only the Big Bang happens but also the Big Crunch ,because time itself fulfilled every thing there was to live ..

    And every possibility there was to experience and everything now complete…the universe and it’s forces of gravity would now have no purpose but to reverse and to start everything all over…and to accomplish a state of Gravity where time itself stands still and wishes to go in reverse only to relive itself all over again,to look at the last moment as the most beautiful day ever,to love life where every moment is complete,to live like you could life your life all over again only to experience Love again,this you see is the meaning of this movie…and if you understand this,you understand how to life,the understand the meaning of life…you understand Love,and when you’ve experienced it all,there is nothing left to do because you’re everything and everyone,and the very reason you’re also a Nobody and you cease to exist.

    A man who stands for everything ,is a man who stands for nothing, he’s a Nobody.

    There is incredibly depth in this movie and that is why I guess I’ll forever be in love with the way it was presented.


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