Published on April 30th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
The Ninth Gate 
Summary: Polanski revisits the occult in this jet-setting thriller, to flaccid results. Every supernatural cliché is here and Depp totally phones it in.
R | 133 min.
Director: Roman Polanski | Screenplay: Roman Polanski, John Brownjohn, Enrique Urbizu (based on Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s novel The Club Dumas)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Lena Olin, Frank Langella
Distribution: Artisan Entertainment (U.S.) | U.S. Box Office: $18,661,336 (#101 for 2000)
When writing reviews for this site, I always try to remain objective and focus on only the film that’s right in front of me. That’s almost impossible to do when you’re dealing with certain directors, however. For example, it’s hard to watch The Rainmaker or The Outsiders and not think of Apocalypse Now or to take an unfiltered look at Jackie Brown without the greatness of Pulp Fiction nagging at your expectations. The name Roman Polanski has the same effect as Coppola, Tarantino or any of the all-time great directors–it raises the stakes.
But in the case of The Ninth Gate, no matter whose name were attached to it, it would still suck.
Polanski’s 15th film, this thriller sees the Polish director revisiting the occult and Satanism specifically, to horribly dull results. This entire movie felt uninspired, beginning with Polanski’s script and its star’s flat performance.
For being one of a handful of the biggest stars in the world, Johnny Depp always feels to me like a terribly moody actor. Either he gives his all to a project or completely phones it in from start to finish. In most scenes of The Ninth Gate, it feels like Depp isn’t interested; he brings none of the oddball electricity he showed in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas just a year prior or in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow in the same year. Then again, Hunter Thompson and Ichabod Crane are infinitely more endearing than Dean Corso, his character in The Ninth Gate.
Corso is, by all accounts, an asshole. He ‘s a big player in the apparently high stakes, unscrupulous world of rare book collecting. When we first meet the character, he’s blindly ripping off an old man’s prized literary possession for a price far below what it’s actually worth. The story begins when he’s hired by creepy Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) the world’s foremost collector of Satanic texts. Balkan has acquired a copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows–supposedly co-written by the Dark Lord himself–of which only two other copies exist. Corso is tasked with tracking down the other two editions and verifying the authenticity of each.
The world of The Ninth Gate is a stuffy one, full of wealthy characters who get their kicks discussing the binding and paper quality of books from the 1600s…one gets the sense these guys don’t get laid a lot. In his journey, Corso jet sets across Europe but the film doesn’t present his destinations in a glorious, Travel Channel sort of way. Polanski’s cameras hit the high societies of New York City, Portugal and France but these locations aren’t shot for beauty by cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven, The Beach). Most of the picture is set indoors, near vast book shelves but the exterior shots are all street-level angles, keeping the lens low to the ground.
Atmospherically, The Ninth Gate is oddly silly and light for a film that deals in very dark subject matter. Perhaps Polanski is making a statement on what he sees as a ridiculous devotion to religion by some people, but I’m thinking it was more likely just a lack of vision. His 1968 occult classic Rosemary’s Baby, a master class in paranoid storytelling, treats the same subject with a great deal of respect–but this film differs from that one in just about every way. Even the score of The Ninth Gate is rather goofy, reminding me so much of the music from Ghostbusters that I just kept waiting for Rick Moranis to pop in and invite Corso to a party at his apartment–then I was disappointed when he didn’t.
Even the whole idea of the mystical book at the story’s center is cheesy. As I mentioned, it was supposedly co-authored by Satan with writer
Jodi Picoult Astide Torchia but sneaky ol’ Beelzebub used the nom de plume “LCF” (AKA: Lucifer, as Depp spells out for us quite unnecessarily). Oh, and did I mention that the book was written in the year 1666? It’s like they dug up every cliché about the Devil they could find and crammed it into the story. Frankly, I was stunned they book wasn’t printed in the blood of a virgin child.
One character I did enjoy in this film was a mysterious woman played by Polanski’s wife, former fashion model Emmanuelle Seigner. Her character isn’t given a proper name, known only as “The Girl” in the credits, but it becomes pretty obvious there’s more to her than meets the eye when she levitates down a staircase and physically takes on a pair of tough guys who are bent on attacking Corso.
It’s clear she represents one side of the everlasting battle between good and evil but you’re not sure which until The Ninth Gate‘s abrupt (that may be the understatement of the century) ending. She and Balkan both appear to be omniscient, reaching out to Corso at the precise moment he may need some help and both apparently know where he needs to go next. At one point, he asks the girl, “You’re my guardian angel then?” To which she answers, “If you say so.”
The execution of The Ninth Gate just felt half baked, with some plot points making no sense. Early on we’re led to believe that, surrounded by religion and idols, C0rso only worships the almighty dollar. In one telling passage, the protagonist’s beliefs are questioned, with his response being, “I believe in my percentage.” However, Corso appears to have no money, living in a meager apartment where he heats up TV dinners in the microwave and apparently has a closet full of drab, shabby clothing. No explanation is attempted as to why he’s so money hungry, we’re simply left to believe that he is and either we buy it or not.
It’s also hard to believe that Balkan would simply hand over a prized book he paid over $1,000,000 for to Corso, allowing him to drag it around on an overseas trip just weeks after obtaining it. The whole thing just feels forced and have I mentioned that ending? The final scene of No Country for Old Men feels fully developed by comparison.
Movies like The Ninth Gate play with a subject that’s very easy to evoke fear in an audience. By the same token, dealing with Satanism can feel very cheap and hokey when not treated with real weight. It’s too bad this picture is so rife with cliché, especially from a filmmaker that’s handled the same dark themes with such potency in the past. Polanski still had some outstanding work ahead of him but watching The Ninth Gate may be worse than a weekend in the Abyss.