The Ninth Gate
1999, R, 133 min. Directed by Roman Polanski. Starring Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner, Frank Langella, Johnny Depp.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., March 17, 2000
The devil, apparently, isn't in the details after all. That's the hard lesson viewers will take away from this deadly -- one might even say infernally -- dull ordeal of glacial plot accumulation, insultingly dumbed-down dialogue, and zombie-esque acting foisted upon them by a director who once was an unchallenged master of stylish horror cinema. Barring some kind of devilish practical joke this is, indeed, the work of the same man who made Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, among other classics of psychologically complex modern suspense. And in terms of plot and setting, The Ninth Gate hints at a return to the same ground Polanski has worked so successfully in the past. All the action, promisingly enough, revolves around a 17th-century book called The Ninth Gate of the Kingdom of Shadows, which was allegedly co-authored by none other than the Son of the Morning himself, and which is said to give its possessor superhuman powers over time and space. The trouble is, three copies of the book are known to exist, and there's no certainty as to which is authentic. Depp's character, Dean Corso, is an amoral book expert hired by sinister collector Boris Balkan (Langella) to locate the real McCoy and deliver it by any means necessary. We understand very early that the vampiric-looking Balkan actually believes in the tome's diabolical powers and has no problem with drowning, immolating, or otherwise disposing of anyone who has a problem with his plans. By the time Corso finds out, however, he's in way too deep to back out and is threatened not only by his ruthless employer but other mysterious figures such as rival collector Liana Tefler (Olin, in an enjoyable return to her deadly hellcat persona last seen in Romeo Is Bleeding) and a silent, Dennis Rodmanesqe French hitman who makes several ineffectual attempts to off him. Say this for Polanski: He hasn't lost his flair for evoking a clammy, disquieting sense of latent menace in genteelly decaying city buildings and back streets. The perverse, exquisitely dry humor is intact, as well, and Depp is effective when his character echoes the jaded unflappability of Jack Nicholson's Jake Gittes character from Chinatown. But nowhere in this protracted psychological prick-tease of a movie is there more than a wan hint of the harrowing intensity and ambient dread that made Repulsion and Knife in the Water so unforgettable. Doubtless some of the blame is in the uninspired adaptation (by Polanski, Enrique Urbizu, and John Brownjohn) of Arturo Perez-Reverte's novel, The Club Dumas. Long stretches pass in which no word or action rises above Mannix-level TV cliché, and most of the actors seem to have been issued one facial expression at the beginning of the film, along with pain-of-death instructions not to change it under any circumstance. It's just too dispiriting for words, and not even the late intrusion of a gratuitous nude scene by Seigner and a what-the-hell-was-that? surprise ending are enough to leave even the faithful with anything more than a sense of having been victimized by a numbingly long and elaborate bait-and-switch scam.