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The Ninth Gate (2000) [Review Re-View]

Originally released March 10, 2000:

The latest from old school horror pioneer Roman Polanski is a dark and brooding thriller that is… very long and brooding. What begins with noir charm and decadence grows thin by the movie’s over-bloated running time – giving new definition to the term “tedium.” The visuals are grim and noirish, but hang forever. Half of the movie is seeing Johnny Depp walk from Point A to Point B; and then the other half is watching him light up a cigarette usually already with drink safely in hand. Depp plays a librarian that doesn’t play by all the rules, or something or other. He’s set out to authenticate the last three books of a Satanic worshiper only to discover they lead to a path of devilish power. By the time Ninth Gate reaches its climax at an Eyes Wide Shut-style group gathering the audience has already hopelessly lost feeling in their ass. The vague ending is a cop-out after what the viewer is forced to go through to finally find out the secrets of these special 15th century books/doorstops. When it’s not carelessly lingering The Ninth Gate has some interest to it, but too often than not, it just rolls ahead forgetful of the audience that paid to come see it.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Times sure have changed for famous director Roman Polanski. He’s been filming movies entirely in Europe for years since he fled the United States to escape prosecution for rape charges. He even won an Academy Award in 2002 for The Pianist, though he wasn’t present to accept naturally. However, in a post-Me Too realm of improved scrutiny over the bad habits of bad men with power and influence, Polanski hasn’t had a movie with notable names since 2012’s Carnage. He’s made a few foreign-language films since but his sphere seems notably smaller, more confined, and more shut off from the industry and actors and moneymen that want to work with the famous director. They’ve even attempted to get him extradited back to the U.S. again. All of this cannot help but color re-watching The Ninth Gate, especially when it already plays upon memories of Polanski’s own Rosemary’s Baby. I wondered if this movie might actually be better twenty years later, and for a while I was feeling like my young film critic self was perhaps a little too quick to judgment. However, upon recent viewing, this is still a long and boring misfire.

The premise is slightly intriguing until you realize what it exactly entails. Johnny Depp’s character, Dean Corso, is a rare book evaluator and unscrupulous profiteer. He’s been hired by wealthy magnate Boris Balkin (Frank Langella) to authenticate a book reportedly co-written by the Devil himself and, if real, has the ability to summon Old Scratch to boot. Hey, we got something there for an intriguing horror movie that delves into the occult. And for perhaps the first act, The Ninth Gate works well enough to establish its mood and its central conflict. Then it just kept going. And kept going. And that’s when you realize that much of this movie involves one man traveling to different chateaus and other European estates to simply look at books. There are three copies of this rare Devil-penned tome, so Dean Corso is traveling to at least two different locales simply to compare and contrast books. I don’t think I’m fully articulating just how boring this can get. Imagine a significant other sitting beside you and deep in thought with a dense textbook. Imagine watching them read and make the occasional verbal noise. That is The Ninth Gate. Watching people read is boring, especially when it’s done repeatedly. There are MULTIPLE scenes of simply watching Depp look over a book while music plays. Film is a visual medium, and reading is inherently an internal function unless adjusted in context. It’s not like he’s deliberating over whether to send a text to a special someone, what the personal correspondence means to his concept of his family, it’s a man compare old books for a job. It’s not like he’s obsessed over this book for years or is a true believer of its power.

Some of this might even be permissible if the stodgy 133-minute film wasn’t so tediously repetitive (spoilers to follow). Corso is paid to authenticate the book but every person he encounters that knows a little about this book ends up dead. The book dealer he has stash the book? Dead. The old man with the second copy who says he’ll never sell his book not even if his life depended on it? Dead. The old lady expert with the third copy who despises Boris Balkin? Dead. By the time that wheelchair-bound woman is found to be repeatedly running into a wall, and upon further inspection has her tongue hanging out her mouth in an unintentionally goofy sight, the plot structure of The Ninth Gate has entered farce. Dean Corso doesn’t seem terribly alarmed by any of this or observant of an obvious pattern of events. He has several run-ins with goons and a mysterious blonde woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) that follows his every move. He seems comically oblivious to the danger all around him. Part of this is the repetitive plot structure where over an hour of the movie follows Depp going to a place, discovering one minor addition of information, finding that person dead, being chased, then repeating. It takes over an hour simply to note that there are minute differences in the engravings in the three copies of the devilish book. Then it simply shifts into a game of who can capture all the copies, which it should have been from the start, and would have introduced a very necessary sense of urgency from a prosaic script. Another reason for that general turgid feeling is that Depp seems to be sleepwalking through this performance absent emotion. Even Polanski himself complained.

This is a movie about a special book that can unleash the powers of the Devil, so why is the finished film so boring and frustrating to sit through? It has rival cults and business tycoons fending for ownership over that power. At least it does in theory. The fact that there are competing interests should have been a substantially larger element of the movie. Once Lena Olin’s rich widow character sleeps with Dean Corso to get the first copy back, she disappears from the narrative until the very end, where she’s dispatched without any intervention from her assembled cult of would-be Satanists. Seriously they just stand by and watch a guy strangle her to death and jump at the word “Boo!” They were never a threat even if they were responsible for one part of the mysterious stalkers. The other stalker, our ever-present blonde, will literally float at times and come to kung-fu kicking rescue, which made me snort out loud. It just comes across so goofy. Her identity is clearly in a supernatural answer but the movie never fully explains who she is, what her real motivations are, her allegiances, and even what the ending is supposed to mean. After 133 minutes, it’s egregious that Polanski doesn’t provide a conclusion that feels even fleetingly conclusive. The whole movie is a mystery that moves with irritatingly incremental steps that leads to one big shrug.

I can see the appeal of the idea of this story but I don’t see the appeal of making The Ninth Gate as is, beside visiting some fabulous locations in Portugal and Spain. Why get an actor of Depp’s caliber if he’s going to read on camera and not worry about his encroaching danger? Why does this movie need 133 minutes to set up a plot that could have done it in 100? I think Polanski was eager to revisit the old school horror of his early works and didn’t sweat the details. Mysterious castles of old. Dangerous strangers. Cults. The Devil. Book authentication. Okay, maybe not that last part. I suppose one could charitably say Polanski is trying to establish an unsettling mood with patient-yet-paranoid camerawork and a story that feels unhurried. It feels to me like Polanski doesn’t know what movie he wants to make and is in no rush to get there. The most overtly horror moments fall into self-parody. That’s really where the movie errs for me. It takes great horror story elements and says instead of running with cults and the Devil, what if we focused more on the slow authentication of dusty old books? Not their power or meaning or value to devious men and women, but on whether they are real. That would be like finding a treasure map and then trying to make sure the ink was authentic for its era rather than, you know, hunting for treasure.

My original review twenty years ago is a bit harsh and angry, though I can understand why especially after such an anticlimactic ending. I would say the movie is more than watching Depp walk from Point A to point B, though to be sure that is heavily represented onscreen. I might even slightly raise my letter grade but the criticisms still stand as stated. Even twenty years later, with a fresh set of eyes, The Ninth Gate is a disappointing story that says too little and takes too long to do so.

Re-View Grade: C

The Ghost Writer (2010)

Ewan McGregor (Angels & Demons, Big Fish) stars as The Ghost (no, he never earns a name even in the closing credits). He’s an expert ghost writer for best-selling autobiographies, and his services have been enlisted for his biggest client yet. Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) is a former British prime minister currently embroiled in a legal scandal. He’s being accused of handing over British citizens to the United States to be tortured, all in the name of the War on Terror. Lang and his wife (Olivia Williams) have holed up in a fabulous house along Cape Cod, hiding from swarms of international media. The book’s due date is soon approaching and nobody is really pleased with the first draft. Mike, the first ghost writer, can’t help with the revisions on account that his abandoned car was discovered on a Massachusetts ferry and his body washed ashore the next day. The Ghost begins to suspect that Mike somehow stumbled across some very potent and damaging information, and the secrets are hidden somewhere in that manuscript.

Consider me pleasantly surprised at how effective this small little political thriller turned out to be. It doesn’t have an overworked narrative agenda, but the few things it does it does quite well. Firstly, it’s a pleasure for a thriller to actually make the audience feel as paranoid as the main character. He treats the idea of a conspiracy as nonsense to begin with, but then he starts to second-guess that car traveling behind. What about that guy two blocks down talking to himself? The screenplay achieves a palpable sense of paranoia, nicely placing you in the emotional state of our lead. You may run questions through your head as well, wondering who can ultimately be trusted, who to turn to next, what information to divulge and to whom, whether to get into the mysterious car or not. The best “thriller” moment is the Ghost waiting in his car and driving for cover, but even that is done in a style that doesn’t feel ripped from an action blockbuster. I’ve watched so many thrillers that get by on studious attention to the routines of the genre, and while The Ghost Writer doesn’t exactly break new ground, the movie keeps the threat of danger real. Actually, on that very note, The Ghost Writer does something unexpected, which is that it begins to lull you into a false sense of security or complacency, and then it robs you of that sense of security in the end. I enjoyed the film’s climax, though even at my screening I heard dissatisfied grumbles on the way out.

The movie is without exchanges of gunfire, explosions, or any nefarious, shadowy individual pressing a red button and laughing maniacally. The Ghost Writer exists in a world very similar to our own. It’s a conspiracy thriller in the same vein as The Constant Gardener or Michael Clayton. The menace is far more subdued; the danger getting tighter as we push forward yet the threat feels deceptively relaxed. It’s the kind of conspiracy thriller that feels like a workable conspiracy, which means that most of the dirty work is implied or done behind the scenes. This means that you have to work a little harder to engage with The Ghost Writer because it chooses not to spell out its litany of danger and those who are dangerous, but it also makes for a more effective experience of paranoia. The film even seems to follow this edict in its visual presentation. The movie has an eerie cool feel to it thanks to the downcast, icy blue-hued cinematography and sleek, sparse art direction, suggesting something is amiss but you can’t quite put your finger on what. It’s also continuously raining, a favorite, if overused, cinematic metaphor.

The Ghost Writer intelligently explores a current international imbroglio, making the political crisis relevant without reaching for a soapbox. The politics of torture is a topic that doesn’t appear to be disappearing any time soon. Torture also provides a fine, morally queasy subject matter to dive into and pick apart. Willful involvement in torture presents several ethical challenges for a character (unless you’re Jack Bauer), which can prove to be a meaty area to watch gifted actors chew over all that rueful decision-making and hand wringing. But alas, this is not a message movie like the slew of 2007 Iraq/torture films that fell flat, mostly because those lukewarm-to-awful movies felt a message supplanted entertainment. The Ghost Writer is a piece of entertainment first, an adult and a cerebral movie that has a striking sense of humor. The dialogue is surprisingly quippy, full of great one-liners amidst all the peril and uncertainty. So while the movie has some points about global politics, ownership and responsibility, the role of media and rewriting history, the movie doesn’t commit entertainment suicide trying to service a message.

Personally, I found the behind-the-scenes work of a ghost writer to be just as interesting, if not more so, than the conspiracy unraveling. The editing process can be fascinating for such a high profile political leader; deciding what moments to emphasize, what moments to forget, what narrative will be fashioned to make sure that a politician comes out on top, spiting his enemies without looking bitter. It’s a delicate balancing act and a precarious responsibility for the ghost writer, controlling a human beings life story for the annuls of mass market history. And these ghost writers get no recognition, even after mimicking the speaking/writing styles of their subject, and these are often subjects who are used to having their thoughts and opinions groomed, tested, and prepared by others, so what difference does their autobiographies make? I believe Sarah Palin could not write her own name without the aid of a ghost writer and/or a bevy of trained subordinates. While this storyline pretty much expectantly falls by the wayside once the conspiracy stuff emerges, I felt that the movie did a respectable service to honor ghost writers everywhere (Palin’s own ghost writer was Lynn Vincent).

The cast all seemed to dig their juicy roles, judging from the performances. Brosnan and Williams are obviously playing versions of Tony and Cherie Blair, so it’s fun to watch both actors enjoy their thinly veiled roles. Brosnan (Mamma Mia) is terrific and Williams (An Education) has this disquieting calm about her that only breaks in a handful of telling moments. Many actors have these small, sometimes one-scene, parts but they make the most of them. Kim Cattrall is spunky as Lang’s loyal personal assistant (her accent isn’t flawless, but that alone is better than her work in the Sex and the City movie). Tom Wilkinson (Duplicity) also shows up as an Ivy League professor with a mysterious background, and the man knows exactly how to play a treacherous gentleman. You may be shocked to see a bald-headed, bulldog-looking Jim Belushi appear on screen, and he’s good too as a publishing exec with no patience for niceties. But the movie is McGregor’s and the actor does not disappoint. It’s pleasing to watch his character transform from observer to actor. He’s a charismatic guy that speaks his mind and a worthy hero to root for.

And it took until the final paragraph for me to mention director Roman Polanski’s current legal woes. The Ghost Writer was Polanski’s last film he directed before being obtained by Swiss authorities and set to be expedited back to California for a 30-year-old rape charge. It’s hard not to read somewhat into the premise: a man hiding from authorities with a charge hanging over his head. This may well prove to be the last film we’ll see from the 77-year-old director judging from the pending legal issues. If it does indeed serve as the last piece in the career of a talented director, it will at least be a high point. At least Polanski’s last film wasn’t the abominable Ninth Gate.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Ninth Gate (1999)

The latest from old school horror pioneer Roman Polanski is a dark and brooding thriller that is… very long and brooding. What begins with noir charm and decadence grows thin by the movie’s over-bloated running time – giving new definition to the term “tedium.” The visuals are grim and noirish, but hang forever. Half of the movie is seeing Johnny Depp walk from Point A to Point B; and then the other half is watching him light up a cigarette usually already with drink safely in hand. Depp plays a librarian that doesn’t play by all the rules, or something or other. He’s set out to authenticate the last three books of a Satanic worshiper only to discover they lead to a path of devilish power. By the time Ninth Gate reaches its climax at an Eyes Wide Shut-style group gathering the audience has already hopelessly lost feeling in their ass. The vague ending is a cop-out after what the viewer is forced to go through to finally find out the secrets of these special 15th century books/doorstops. When it’s not carelessly lingering The Ninth Gate has some interest to it, but too often than not, it just rolls ahead forgetful of the audience that paid to come see it.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Reviewed 20 years later as part of the “Reviews Re-View: 2000” article.

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