The Ninth Gate is a well-crafted and entertaining horror film. While director Roman Polanski chooses to lilt over the horrific trajectory that tugs mercenary book dealer Dean Corso (Johnny Depp) toward the gates of Hell, rather than embrace his protagonist's terror as he did with such shockers as Rosemary's Baby (1968) or The Tenant (1976), Polanski stakes out his own ground rules and adheres to them flawlessly. The suspense is formal as it is purposeful.
From the film’s textbook opening scene in which Polanski's subjective camera discerningly divulges aspects of a millionaire's library in which imminent death approaches, to the thorough European pacing over which the devilish story unfolds, The Ninth Gate takes the audience on a joyfully evil descent into perplexing other-worldly shadows.
Based on Arturo Perez-Reverte's best-selling novel El Club Dumas, this is a modern gothic horror story woven from the proposed power of satanic literature to conjure up the Devil himself. Dean Corso is an unscrupulous book broker hired by Satan scholar Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to travel from New York to Toledo, Portugal, and Paris to compare Balkin's recently acquired 1666 edition of a rare, hand-bound manual of satanic invocation, supposedly written by Satan himself, against the only two other copies in existence to verify the tome's authenticity.
Balkan tells the amoral Corso: "There's nothing more reliable than a man who can be bought." Corso's cynical character trait of temptation is written in the sanguine fluid of money from the film's beginning. Corso wears death on his sleeve like a war zone journalist hot for action. Johnny Depp uses a vocal texture that rumbles from the screen in a dark pitch that catches you off guard. His economic but heavy timbre establishes a hollowness in his character, dying to be filled with some unknown organic passion. At times, Depp seems to recede into the film's creaking metal and dry tinder-in-a-box settings. He suggests a precise mortal puppet being manipulated by collaborating evil forces to trace steps he cannot help but follow.
Polanski and his two collaborating screenwriters, John Brownjohn (Tess) and Enrique Urbizu, orchestrate their Faustian script in a cinematic shorthand that magnifies tiny details like subtle differences in the nine diabolical engravings which comprise the murderous puzzle that Corso attempts to unravel amidst the three volumes. Polanski drops in sudden repulsive images that give terse nods to such horror films as Hitchcock's Frenzy, and Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now. He allows scenes to play without the ersatz aid of musical accompaniment, resulting in a delightfully intimate game of call and response for the audience to conceive while the action unfolds. There are so many highly polished cinematic elements to enjoy in every frame of the movie that repeated viewing beckons.
Pauline Kael said that "great movies are rarely perfect movies," and this truism certainly applies to The Ninth Gate. Actress Emmanuelle Seigner's (Frantic) sub-plot as Dean Corso's mysterious, dark guardian angel slips through the film as a sexy and enigmatic mascot that Corso accepts too easily. There are plenty of silly bumps and loopy twists that don't sufficiently fulfill a dynamic dramatic arc for the film's slightly long running time, but no jolting scares. Still, there is plenty to enjoy in director of photography, Darius Khondji's (Seven) hand-in-glove association with the masterful vision of a director who believes that content is more important than form.
In the end, Dean Corso could readily be an alter-ego fugitive that Polanski recognizes in the mirror of the camera lens. It's an image you can almost imagine.
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