The Ninth Gate opens with a short and simple camera movement that finds the crepe-edged comedy in the final moments of a man’s life – it’s vintage Roman Polanski. The horror genre has been degraded for so long that having Polanski (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown) back in charge feels like the restoration of a monarch. The Ninth Gate maintains this triumphant feeling for half of its running time, and not even its self-mocking climax can fully extinguish the glow. As it is, it’s a letdown of a movie that’s worth seeing for its hundred marvelous touches.
Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) is a rare book broker who brings an ambulance-chasing mentality to his trade: he lulls his moneyed clients to sleep with talk, then beats them out of their first editions. It’s this lean and hungry attitude that attracts demonology scholar Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to him. Balkan has acquired a 17th Century text held by legend to be capable of invoking the Devil. Believing that his copy may be a fake, Balkan instructs Corso to travel to Portugal and Paris, where two other copies of the book reside in private collections, and to compare the three texts to test their authenticity. Corso’s search brings him into contact with an array of people who have hidden agendas: a widow (Lena Olin) who’s desperately trying to reclaim her copy of the book; an aging baroness (Barbara Jefford) who bitterly rejects Corso’s efforts to examine her volume; and a mysterious woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) whose appearances have the fortuitous timing of a guardian angel.
Everything clicks on the surface of The Ninth Gate. After the modest Bitter Moon and Death and the Maiden, Polanski has made an expensive-looking, voluptuous movie that revels in its decadent atmosphere. Visually the movie is completely thought out, down to the way a crumbling estate reflects the personality of its gray, receding owner. And Polanski is still the master of those poisonous touches – a flickering light in a telephone booth, a little girl’s unnerving stare – that seem like rents in the veil of a malignant universe.
The movie’s troubles begin with its casting. Depp fits the look of the movie so well that he’s like a piece of production design, but he delivers such a clouded, somnambulant performance that even the sight of Lena Olin hitching her skirt up to her waist barely elicits a twang from him. Coupling him with the flavorless Seigner makes for a lot of narcotized scenes where the vibes just hang in the air; it’s as if Polanski tried to produce a chemical reaction by mixing flour with flour. (In the meantime, Langella and Jefford absolutely romp through the movie, bringing just the right shade of seriousness to some supremely unserious lines.)
But if Depp hasn’t done anything to shape his role, Polanski hasn’t given him much clay to work with. Dean Corso gets none of the loving detail that Polanski usually lavishes on his characters; instead, he consists of a few shorthand flourishes, not all of which make sense. (Even if the swanky Corso would eat a TV dinner, why would he shove one into the microwave without removing it from the box?) More importantly, we can tease out of the story the idea that Corso’s assignment has turned him into a modern-day Faust, but we never really glimpse the contours of his obsession, and neither Polanski nor Depp let us know why or when it takes hold of him. Without a human being in the picture to give it psychological scale, we can’t even muster a sense of dread when Satan himself is being conjured up.
These slights to his protagonist are the surest sign that Polanski is not fully himself here, but The Ninth Gate is careless even with its central mystery. Visual clues that ought to remain subliminal until a second or third viewing are conspicuous during the first one, so that we’re forced to solve the movie’s riddles prematurely, against all of our moviegoing instincts. And where we want the script to punish us for our presumptuousness, it only gives us speeches confirming what we’ve figured out for ourselves.
The Ninth Gate gets punchier the farther along it goes. Seigner’s goddess-like descent from the sky is a lovely conceit (and the most affectionate view that Polanski’s ever given us of his real-life wife), but the magic is immediately dispelled by a wretchedly staged fistfight. Later on, Corso and his angel steal a high-powered sports car, and we brace ourselves for a high-concept car chase, Polanski-style. But when Corso’s quarry effortlessly gives him the slip, we realize that Polanski is only taking a minimalist’s dig at the absurdity of the car-chase convention. (It’s a punchline without a joke in front of it.) When Corso infiltrates a coven of devil worshippers, Depp in his outsized robes and pendant looks like he’s in a live-action version of "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice." It’s a hit that no movie could fully recover from, but things go even farther to pot in a brief scene that occurs late in the picture. Polanski has often mocked the idea that sex is the devil’s handiwork, but never before has his sense of satire worked on such a perfunctory, first-draft level.
Polanski has always ridden a savory line between horror and black comedy in a style that’s unmistakably his. No one else would have Rosemary still the creaking bassinet with the point of a butcher knife; no one else would stick a corpse in a motorized wheelchair and send it smashing through a pair of French doors. All of his talent and obsessions are on display in The Ninth Gate, but he winds up relying on the tropes of younger (and lesser) directors, as if at 66 he feels some need to prove his relevance. Some people will like The Ninth Gate because it’s weighted more toward parody than artful dread, but that’s the tamest, easiest route a Polanski picture can take. It’s painful to watch The Ninth Gate’s meticulous tone and rhythms go for naught in its final half-hour, until it can’t dig into us the way his movies usually do – until it can’t sting. We may still feel inclined towards laughter, but this time it’s not sticking in our throats.
– Tom Block