The Ninth Gate was dubbed a thriller, but thankfully, the film for the most part does not revert to clichés associated with the genre. Far from a horror movie or thriller, The Ninth Gate is a mystery-adventure, with the feel of a dark Indiana Jones picture, minus the one-liners.
Director Roman Polanski comes close to making a great movie, but three quarters of the way into the film The Ninth Gate loses itself and the audience.
Adapted from the novel, The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Ninth Gate revolves around Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), a book hunter who sells his rare discoveries to the highest bidder. He is contacted by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), a wealthy publisher with his own rare book collection, all relating to the Devil. His most precious is titled The Nine Gates, one of only three copies in existence. A legend states the book was co-authored by Satan and that the nine etchings contained within can conjure up the demon himself. Balkan wants Corso to compare his book to the other two copies for authenticity, and to bring the real book back by any means necessary ("Any means necessary sounds illegal," Corso replies wryly). A large cheque quickly convinces him, and he heads to Europe.
Soon things go awry and death follows Corso wherever he goes, as well as a mysterious woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) who acts as a guardian. Faces of people in the etchings begin to look remarkably like people Corso meets in Europe, adding to the eeriness. Upon comparing Balkan's book with the others, he notices the etchings are slightly different, and that some are signed LCF (Lucifer). A race for the Devil's etchings ensues, and the power they contain, with Corso in the middle. What is most intriguing about the movie are the books it focuses on; the audience is brought into the world of bibliophiles, rare book collectors, and soon their passion becomes our own. Scenes of books being removed from shelves, carefully opened, and delicately looked through evoke feelings of mystery and discovery not easily forgotten.
Memories of going into attics, tingling with excitement at the hope of some discovery are what The Ninth Gate brings back.
The cinematography in The Ninth Gate is amazing, courtesy Darius Khondji. Close-ups of Corso's fingers running across 400-year-old pages lets the audience feel them as well. The movie was filmed on location in Spain, France and Portugal, and scenes at twilight amid castles and the countryside are breathtaking. Even the colours of the film are noticeable; dark, rich shades are prominent and it seems everything is dimmed without
being gloomy. Rounding out the look and feel of the picture is Wojciech Kilar's perfectly matched music, setting the mood without being overly menacing.
The acting and casting in The Ninth Gate is top notch. Depp really fits the role of Corso, if not from just a physical standpoint. With his librarian glasses, dark clothes, and mustache with goatee, Corso looks both educated and mysterious.
As for his acting, Depp begins with a stock character; Corso is a mercenary without conscience and lives for profit no matter who is in his way.
Thankfully, throughout the movie, Depp adds enough wrinkles to the character to keep the audience confused about Corso's true intentions. Corso's alcohol intake increases with every scene, and he unravels, forming an obsession surrounding the book rivaling Balkan's.
Frank Langella is simply perfect as Balkan. He takes on a character that could easily be done in an over the top fashion, but he remains reserved, creating a complex and frightening character.
The pace of the film is a treat, but with a running time of over two hours, The Ninth Gate loses its power towards the end. The search for the truth about the book is given time to develop instead of being forced upon the audience, but this doesn't justify the length of the movie.
Adding to the problem are the unnecessary twists in the last 30 minutes of the picture; just when a resolution seems near, a new fold appears, and Corso must follow along. Finally, when making a film with an epic storyline such as raising the Devil, the director has to decide how far to take the story.
The Ninth Gate is foremost about the search, and Polanski leaves the rest to the imagination. This is probably for the best, but the viewer still leaves the theatre feeling a little cheated by the ending.
Under any other director but Polanski, The Ninth Gate could have degenerated into standard thriller/horror fare. Instead, we are presented with a movie focused on mystery and not fright. Polanski, however, can't seem to pull the film together, and near the end, the tingly feeling of wonder in the back of the viewer's neck disappears.
The Ninth Gate opens Mar. 10.