"The Ninth Gate," an alleged mystery-thriller from famed, yet controversial,
director Roman Polanski (1968's "Rosemary's Baby," 1974's "Chinatown"), is a
wildly overlong 133-minutes sludge through well-worn territory and
predictable twists and turns, seemingly leading up to a whopper of an ending.
But the ending never arrives; the screen just fades to white, then to black,
and the credits roll, before you have even seen anything that would make you
care one way or the other about the fate of the protagonist and the
predicament he is in.
Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), a wealthy collector of Lucifer-themed relics
in New York City, hires seedy book dealer Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) for a
well-compensated mission: travel to Europe, weed out the other two copies of
a treasured, potentially dangerous book he owns, the 17th-century satanic
text entitled "The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows," and investigate
which of the three copies is the original. Containing the power to summon the
Devil, Corso must work fast to find them, for whoever owns one of the books
may very well be plotting the end of the world.
Based on the novel, "El Club Dumas," by Arturo Perez-Reverte, "The Ninth
Gate" drags out its only somewhat intriguing investigation to ridiculous
lengths, slowly--and I mean slowly--moving from one scene to the next. It is
only in retrospect that you realize just how superfluous much of the film is,
as Corso learns very little throughout, and is so dense that the viewer
always knows more than he does (which isn't much to know, to begin with).
Following an appropriately deliberate prologue and a superbly realized and
entrancing opening credits sequence, with a memorably sumptuous music score
by Wojciech Kilar, the film goes straight into downtime, and stays there for
over an hour, treading through tedious scenes of meaningless exposition that
don't get Corso anywhere further in his search.
The second hour of the film picks up considerably, as you finally are treated
to scenes that incredibly seem to be leading somewhere, even when they
aren't. There are a few chase sequences placed within the running time to add
a little action to the arduous proceedings, and, more effectively, a handful
of highly effective and tautly directed setpieces. One late moment that will
intentionally be left vague as to not reveal one of the very few disturbing
developments, involves Balkan in a dark and atmospheric castle, black clouds
forbiddingly looming overhead. All of the striking images the film has to
offer, by the way, are thanks to the always-impressive cinematography of
Darius Khondji (whose work on 1999's "In Dreams" was snubbed of an Oscar
For such a world-class filmmaker, Polanski gets little support from his
actors, almost all of whom turn in amateurish performances, as if they were
performing in their very first movie (which is far from the truth), or had
just received the script five minutes prior to when filming commenced (which
may be the case, based on the evidence here). Johnny Depp appears to be
playing the movie for laughs, and isn't having much fun doing it, while Lena
Olin, as the alluring previous owner of one of the books, slinks her way
through her scenes and doesn't pay attention to such a thing as "good"
acting. Of the major characters, only Emmanuelle Seigner, who happens to be
Polanski's younger wife, spices up the goings-on. As a mysterious traveler
that keeps running into Corso during his trip, and then finally is revealed
to know more about "The Nine Gates" than meets the eye, Seigner adds
much-needed life to a picture that, without her and a few select technical
credits, would be as dead as a doornail.
"The Ninth Gate" wants to be a horror movie, and Polanski apparently is
attempting to recapture the acclaim he received from his first satanic-themed
motion picture, "Rosemary's Baby," but he has no such luck. That 1968 classic
chiller offered an outstanding performance from Mia Farrow, and was filled
with a lumbering sense of dread and fear, two things that are largely absent
from "The Ninth Gate."
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman