Lionsgate // 1999 // 133 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 11th, 2009
Leave the unknown alone.
"To travel in silence,
By a long and circuitous route,
To brave the arrows of misfortune,
And fear neither noose nor fire,
To play the greatest of all games,
And win, foregoing no expense,
Is to mock the vicissitudes of Fate,
And gain at last the key,
That will unlock the Ninth Gate."
Dean Corso (Johnny Depp, Sleepy Hollow) is a shifty book dealer with a particular fondness for cash. He has been known to swindle quite a few unsuspecting book owners into giving him their priceless treasures, and as such there are many people who don't trust him. The wealthy Boris Balkin (Frank Langella, Starting Out in the Evening) knows of Corso's sometimes illegal tactics, and that is precisely why he wants to hire Corso for a special assignment. "In my opinion, there is no one more trustworthy than someone who will do anything for money," Balkin declares. Balkin has devoted his entire life to collecting books that focus on a single subject: the devil.
He has many rare and valuable books in his collection, but no book is as rare and valuable as The Ninth Gate. The book supposedly gives the reader all the information they need to be able to conjure up Satan himself. Alas, for some reason, the directions don't seem to be working. Balkin's copy is one of three in existence. He pays Corso a very generous sum of money to fly to Europe to seek out the other two. He wants Corso to find them, examine them, and report any discrepancies that he might discover between the three copies. Corso initially accepts the job with enthusiasm, but it's not going to be easy. He will run into a great deal of violence, murder and other less explainable creepy things before his mission is through. Where will his quest lead him? If he finds everything Balkin is looking for, will he be able to survive it?
The Ninth Gate opens in tremendously effective fashion. The first shot is of an old man sitting at a desk writing a letter. He finishes his letter, walks over to a stool, ties a cord around his neck and hangs himself. It's a very well-shot and intriguing sequence that arouses our curiosity. The opening titles begin, and we watch as the names of the cast and crew appear through a series of nine ominous gates. The music by Wojciech Kilar (echoing his score for Bram Stoker's Dracula) promises a dark tale of fascination. It pulls us in, makes us lean forward. We have been effectively primed for a supernatural thriller.
It continues in strong fashion as the mystery is set up. Dean Corso and Boris Balkin are interesting characters. We have a suspicion that a hunt for rare books about Satan has to turn up something interesting. The investigation begins. During the first half-hour of this, I was thinking, 'Wow, this is pretty good. This is supposed to be one of Polanski's weaker films?" During the second half-hour of investigating, I was thinking, "Well, this is pretty good, but I do wish they'd get to it." During the third half-hour, I was thinking, "The payoff had better be worth all of this tedious mucking about and clue-gathering." As such, the film nearly caves in on itself before it has a chance to get to the finish line. It meanders aimlessly for oh-so-long, seemingly for no good reason other than to push the running time to 133 minutes.
Ah, but the final series of events that occupy the last section of the film finally arrived, and my interest perked up again. "This is where all the fire and brimstone will happen," I thought to myself. Oh, how wrong I was. Dear reader, the conclusion of The Ninth Gate is one of the most spectacularly awful endings I've seen in a film. It does just about everything wrong. It is difficult to talk about precisely what it does wrong without wandering into spoiler territory, so I will try to tread carefully.
The first event is a gathering of like-minded individuals who are attempting to draw Satan into their presence. This sequence should be at least as eerie as the sacrifice scenes in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but it isn't even remotely creepy. This is followed by a sequence in which a man attempts to conjure Satan all by himself. Now here is the interesting part. The conclusion of this scene is very underwhelming, because absolutely nothing supernatural happens. It suggests that there was no Satan to conjure to begin with. "Now this is interesting," I thought. "It's basically Roman Polanski's middle finger to the supernatural thriller genre. He's created a film built entirely around something that was never actually there. We just assumed it would be."
I gave him too much credit. Had the film ended ten minutes before it does, I would have thought it to be a surprisingly thoughtful outing. Alas, it keeps going. Sure enough, the supernatural elements come crashing through the window in a terribly embarrassing and awkward manner (it seems that not even Satan can resist the opportunity to tear off all of her (?) clothes and have sex with Johnny Depp). This awful moment is followed by a denouement that completely betrays Depp's character in a particularly unconvincing way. The entire film dedicates a great deal of time to showing us just what sort of person Depp is, but the final moments attempt to say, "No, no, no, you have it all wrong, he wasn't that sort of person at all." Bollocks. And that last shot is bollocks, too. If you have seen the film, answer me this: what exactly is that gate leading to? If your guess is the same as mine, why would anyone desperately want to go there? And if they're going to go there, could you at least do us the courtesy of giving the rest of us a peek?
I won't devote much time to the performances, though I will note that Johnny Depp is quite good for most of the running time. He can't sell us on the ending, but I'm not sure that anyone could have. Meanwhile, the likes of Frank Langella and Lena Olin have been better elsewhere, while Polanski's wife Emmanuelle Seigner proves to be a fatally poor casting choice.
I found the transfer to be reasonably satisfactory. Blacks are reasonably deep while flesh tones are accurate. The level of detail is moderately good despite some moments that seem a bit too soft. The biggest problem is that the image just looks rather flat during moments that should pop off the screen. This only adds to the somewhat stagnant vibe of the should-have-been-amazing last 40 minutes. Audio is quite strong here, particularly in terms of that superb Kilar score. The music rumbles ominously through your speaker system, successfully enveloping the room in mystery. Dialogue is crisp and clear. The somewhat understated sound design is effective enough.
The extras are all ported over from the previous DVD release: a commentary with Polanski, a making-of featurette, some drawings and some storyboards.
The positive elements here have already been mentioned, but I'll run through them again: a strong opening, a great score, a good Depp performance and gorgeous set design. These just can't compensate for the awfulness of the conclusion.
At a retail price of 20 bucks (with most online retailers selling it for considerably less), The Ninth Gate is a very affordable hi-def disc, but the film itself is unfortunately rather worthless. The lack of new supplements and the merely average transfer prevent me from recommending an upgrade for fans of the film.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R