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The Ninth Gate   B+

Artisan Entertainment

Year Released: 1999
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: John Brownjohn, Roman Polanski, Enrique Urbizu (based on a novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte)
Cast: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin, Emmanuelle Seigner, Barbara Jefford, Jack Taylor, Jose Lopez Rodero, James Russo.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

The Ninth Gate is a rare of breed of film in this age of explosive special effects and thrill-a-minute filmmaking. Although the trailers make it look like a loud, fast-paced horror film, The Ninth Gate is actually far from it. It's a slow, delicately paced detective story that submerges you in the world of dusty libraries, leather-bound tombs of forgotten lore, and wealthy, eccentric characters fascinated with demonology. And there's the ever-present sense of menace and danger in the air.

Johnny Depp is Dean Corso, a rare book dealer who is called upon by the rich, scholarly Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to investigate a matter most dear to him. Balkan has a copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows -- one of only three known in existence. Balkan wants Corso to track down the other two copies to verify its authenticity, or lack thereof. The book supposedly holds the secrets to unleashing Satan upon the earth, and once Corso begins his journey, death and destruction seem to follow him everywhere on his European escapade.

A beautiful French girl (Emmanuelle Seigner) is also following Corso. And though she saves his life once by floating (yes, floating) to the rescue and laying down some martial arts moves on a platinum blond bad guy, Corso isn't quite sure if he can trust her. She knows too much -- just who is she working for and why? While Corso tries to uncover these mysteries and stay just out of death's reach, we're alongside him all the way, trying to put together the pieces that may or may not add up to the larger puzzle.

Director Roman Polanski (Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown) creates an atmosphere of near-giddy unease that entrances you with its seductive spell. You can practically smell the musty worn leather, the brittle pages, and the cigarette smoke. But lurking beneath the creepy ambiance is a quirky sense of humor. Depp is actually very funny here (in a subtle, nuanced kinda way), as is Emmanuelle Seigner (Polanski's real-life wife) as his mysterious guardian angel of sorts.

If you're looking for cheap thrills or scares, look elsewhere. There's very little real action in The Ninth Gate, but there are a few disturbing images here that will remain in your head long after you've left the megaplex. The image of the lifeless baroness in her motorized wheelchair banging against the wall I still can't shake from my mind. (Polanski has a knack for unsettling images -- watch his 1965 masterpiece Repulsion and see if you can get the final shot out of your head.) And the lush, haunting score by Wojciech Kilar is just icing on the already delicious cake.

The movie's only faults come near the end. Aside from a shockingly pointless and absurd sex scene (yes, you get to see the beautiful Seigner naked), the movie has one climax too many. When it does end, you're inexplicably left thinking, "What?" I love ambiguous endings if done right, but here it left me a bit frustrated. Maybe it's not such a bad thing. After all, few movies these days are daring enough to ask audiences to think. It's good to see Polanski doing quality work again, and The Ninth Gate has more class and style than any other Hollywood thriller you'll see this year.

Review published 03.17.2000.

Follow Michael Scrutchin on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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