Regardless of what one thinks about Polanski's personal life or legal status, the man is clearly one of the great directors of his generation; Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary's Baby (1968) remain two of the most disturbing horror films ever made. How then to explain The Ninth Gate's fatal flaws? The film is not without merit: it's full of recognizable Polanski touches, but the whole seems to meander aimlessly, rarely creating a chill, let alone infecting our souls with the profound ontological nausea of Rosemary's Baby or The Tenant.
Johnny Depp stars as Dean Corso, a vaguely shady "book detective" -- a mercenary who will stretch the boundaries of the law and ethics to obtain rare collectibles for his wealthy, obsessed clients. Corso is hired by a sinister millionaire named Boris Balkan (Frank Langella, who, with age, seems to be turning into James Mason) to authenticate Balkan's recent prize purchase -- The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, a 17th-century manual on how to raise the devil.
Given that the work was published in Spain during the Inquisition, it's not surprising that both author and book were incinerated by authorities. Only three copies are said to exist; Balkan is willing to pay Corso a large sum to go to Europe and compare his copy with the other two, looking for irregularities.
Even before Corso can leave New York, strange and violent things begin to happen, suggesting that more is at stake here than mere bibliomania. In short order, it becomes clear that, to raise the devil, one needs actual physical possession of the book; so the stakes are, for believers at least, monumentally high.
The Ninth Gate is an adaptation of The Club Dumas, a bestseller by Spanish novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Pérez-Reverte's book is extraordinarily clever in precisely those ways that translate least well to the screen. The book is a metaphor for the experience of reading books; and a faithful adaptation would translate to the screen about as well as Rear Window, a metaphor for the experience of watching movies, would translate to print.
So Polanski and his collaborators have necessarily stripped away all of Pérez-Reverte's book but the supernatural plotline. Unfortunately, without all the narrative razzle-dazzle, the supernatural aspects are revealed as the weakest elements in the work. We are left with a rambling story about an unsympathetic protagonist who is the target of one or more interchangeable bad guys; there is some weak mystery about who is behind his persecution, but it's hard to care.
Polanski seems disengaged by The Ninth Gate -- as though offended that this pseudo-profound spook story is the best material he can wrangle while in exile from Hollywood. There are moments when it shows the director's unique comic sense of creepiness, but such moments are few and far between. Despite a game attempt by Depp and an excellent supporting cast, The Ninth Gate has a tired, offhand feel to it.The Ninth Gate.