Judge Dylan Charles wasted too much time at the 8th Gate and missed all the action.
The only thing more terrifying than searching for the Devil…is finding him.
It was the year 2000 and through the countless ticking of the years a new millennium was about to be born. There were those who believed that the End of Days were upon us, that a fresh thousand years could only mean that the Apocalypse was nigh. It was during this year, a year of dark signs, a year when the stars trembled, that Artisan released the occult thriller The Ninth Gate on DVD.
Lionsgate is now re-releasing the disc and it has been seven years. Seven long years that could have been used to revitalize the DVD, to add a few more extras, to polish up the transfer to the latest standards. And lo, they re-released The Ninth Gate on this, the seventh year.
And they have done nothing. The Ninth Gate is as it was. There are no new features. This is not a new transfer. This is not a director's cut in which Roman Polanski has added an additional thirty minutes of bookstores and devil worship. Instead, Lionsgate slapped a shiny cardboard coverslip over the first release and sent it out the door. With that said, on with the review!
Facts of the Case
Dean Corso (Johnny Depp, The Libertine) finds and acquires rare and valuable editions of books. He has little in the way of scruples and doesn't care what he has to do to get a book, so long as he gets paid for it. Which is why Boris Balkan (Frank Langella, Superman Returns) hires him to track down two books supposedly written by the Devil, The Ninth Gate.
Corso travels to Portugal and then France, always followed by a mysterious woman (Emmanuelle Seigner, The Bitter Moon) and always followed by death and violence.
Mysterious deaths, a terrifying secret hidden in pages writ centuries ago, the Devil and Johnny Depp playing an asshole should mean damn good times. But, well, it isn't.
I like The Ninth Gate. It has been crafted in such a way that it was a forgone conclusion that I would like this movie. The subject matter alone would be enough to make me giddy. I'm the kind of person that spent twenty minutes in the used bookstore trying to decide which edition of The Divine Comedy to buy because one had great illustrations and the other had both the English translation and the original Italian. So a two hour movie that basically celebrated really old books appealed to me. Throw Roman Polanski (Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby) and Johnny Depp into the mix, and I'm suddenly very forgiving of the flaws.
And there are flaws here.
The Ninth Gate spends a very long time getting where it's trying to go. It dawdles in places that it doesn't need to dawdle, stretching out the running time to almost interminable lengths. Which would be forgivable, something that could be overlooked, if there had been a better ending. The ending lack any kind of impact. One moment Corso is still running about figuring out the puzzle the next minute the conclusion happens and I was looking at the credit scrawl. There's just no definitive, "Ohhh, that's what was going on," and this is the kind of movie that almost demands a moment of gnosis at the end, a moment of "I understand!" A reward for the long journey in other words.
And these two issues damn near cripple the whole thing. Which is a shame because so much is done right. Polanski sets the mood very well, a film noir feel that reminded me of Chinatown. The dilapidated mansion, with the rusted gate and overgrown gardens, the identical twin booksellers, the used bookstore where Corso's friend works, Polanski makes for a great looking picture, filled with character and life.
Johnny Depp is perfect as Corso, setting the right balance between like-able and being an otherwise unappealing human being. When a movie is riddled with the strange and inexplicable, the audience needs someone they can relate to, to take them along for the ride. Depp makes Corso likable enough that we're willing to hang out with him for the duration of the film. Emmanuelle Seigner plays one of those strange and inexplicable things, a mysterious woman who floats in and out of the plot as needed. She does mysterious right, not overplaying her oddness and letting her eyes do most of the work. Frank Langella's voice and bearing fit the millionaire eccentric role.
But in spite of the casting, in spite of the great cinematography, we're still left with a plodding thriller that ultimately doesn't deliver.
The Ninth Gate has been transferred to disc with seven year old technology, so it's just not going to look as sharp as some newer releases. Things are on the soft side, a problem which wasn't too bad on my larger tv, but on my computer was even more apparent. The sound is clear enough however, no complaints there.
The extras are varied. There's an audio commentary from Mr. Polanksi himself, where he just sounds tired throughout. Although he does have interesting things to say, so if you like the movie give it a go. Plus it's worth it just to hear Polanski make fun of Depp's facial hair. The featurette is the typical five minute spate of comments from the director and the star that really don't add up to much. There's also an isolated music track, which is nice if you're interested in watching the movie with no sound except for sporadic bursts of music. The analysis and display of the Satanic drawings from the movie are my personal favorite, but the storyboards (with the accompanying page from the script) are also good fun to flip through.
I really wanted The Ninth Gate to be a good movie. But because of the pacing problems and because of the lackluster ending, I just can't recommend buying it. Give it a rental, but otherwise steer clear and watch Rosemary's Baby instead if you're in the mood for both an occult flick and a Polanski film.
And if you already own the 2000 release, then don't bother buying this one. Unless you have a real need for that real purty slipcover.
Lionsgate is guilty of re-releasing a disc that's seven years old. The Ninth Gate is guilty of spending a long time going nowhere.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Roman Polanski
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