[Written for The Stranger]
Johnny Depp, seedier and more aged than he’s ever played before, stars as a dealer in antique books. When one of his wealthier clients wants him to track down the three remaining copies of a book that, legend has it, was co-written by Lucifer, he has every reason to be suspicious (not the least being that the client is played by Frank Langella). But the paycheck is large enough to overcome his concerns, so Depp flies off to Europe, and the body count starts to rise.
The ninth gate may well be the smartest movie ever made about Satanic worship, thanks to a clever structure that elegantly folds in upon itself, not to mention a witty portrayal of snobbery and backbiting among devil worshippers, and a wise decision to treat that religion as no big deal. Unfortunately, brains aren’t everything. The proceedings unfold with the bored indifference of a hack director marking time, with potentially fine scenes just lying there slack and lifeless, without kick or sizzle. In fact, the only shocking thing about the movie is that it was directed by Roman Polanski.
I’ve stuck up for Polanski a lot over the years—not just over his personal troubles (hey, it was the ’70s!) and subsequent exile, but for his films since then, which may have been silly at times, but were never boring. Until now. Once upon a time, Polanski could edit even a dialogue scene and leave you breathless with suspense; here the “suspense” scenes drag on. He does throw in a few action scenes, but those are embarrassing—the best one being a funny bit where Depp gets chased down a flight of stairs by a bag of oranges. There are flashes of the director’s unique perversity, and anyone who enjoyed worrying about Polanski’s marriage to Emmanuelle Seigner after her humiliating role as the sexual predator in Bitter Moon will have a field day with her casting in this movie. But the comparison only reminds you how bizarre, daring, and engaged Polanski can be at his best. At his worst—and this movie is it—he seems as if he is just as impatient for the damned thing to end as we are.