Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Ninth Gate with Johnny Depp, Frank Langella


The plot is simple: a rare-book dealer seeking the only other copies of a demonic tome, The Nine Gates of the Shadows, for an arrogant client (who already owns one), is drawn into the middle of a conspiracy with supernatural overtones. With Johnny Depp as the book dealer, and Frank Langella playing his employer, you have two essentials for an excellent supernatural thriller.

1999's The Ninth Gate was Depp's first of a trio of demon-centric movies. Two more such films followed close on its heels; Sleepy Hollow was released later in 1999, and From Hell came in 2001. Langella, of course, has a long history of playing sinister supernatural characters—his Dracula is still my benchmark for that role.

The film has a brooding air that comes almost entirely from the stellar performances, brilliant direction and tightly-written script. (The screenplay by John Brownjohn credits the novel by Arturo PĂ©rez-Reverte.) Undoubtedly, the direction by Roman Polanski contributed to this chill-of-the-ordinary approach; recall that Polansky directed and wrote the screenplay for Rosemary's Baby. (Polansky also takes a credit for co-writing this screenplay.)

In Ninth Gate, Langella plays Boris Balkan, a would-be sidekick to Satan, who is convinced that the original illustrations in the three copies of The Nine Gates of the Shadows hold the secret to gaining his desire. He recruits con-artist and rare-book speculator Dean Corso (Depp) to "research" the extant copies, and hands him a huge check in advance.

The puzzle Corso must solve is three-fold. First, he must gain access to the other two books—and since one owner, Baroness Kessler (Barbara Jefford), loathes Balkan and extends that loathing to his agent, the difficulty is not trivial. Second, he must avoid the agents of the Silver Snake, a shadowy cult that developed to save the three volumes from burning in the same auto da fe that executed their author during the Inquisition. Finally, he must solve the riddle of the Ninth Gate before his employer does—and a series of murders that trail Corso's research indicate that Balkan may be setting Corso up as a scapegoat for the crimes he himself has committed.

Unlike other supernatural thrillers, scenes are mostly fully-lit. The darkness here is of the spirit. Guided by an eerie pair of book-restoring twins, Corso notices that some of the illustrations in each book are not signed by the author's initials "AT," but by "LCF." He, and we, are encouraged to believe that these initials stand for "Lucifer." Corso never seems to consider the wisdom of seeking such Satanic knowledge; in his pride, he is focused on solving the puzzle first.

There are other sins than pride and murder, too: all three volumes of the book Corso seeks had been owned by women. Balkan's copy was purchased from the husband of a seductive virago, Mrs. Telfer, played by Lena Olin. Olin's Telfer is the stereotype of the sexy witch, slyly scary in her use of men's lust to satisfy her own self-will. Baroness Kessler is, at first glance, a scholar. Later acquaintance with her reveals a woman just as immersed as Mrs. Telfer in the occult, but one who has despaired of gaining her salvation.

Another unusual aspect of The Ninth Gate is the abundance of visual clues. We have the opportunity (or the illusion of it) to "think ahead" of Corso, to solve the puzzle first. Tatoos, postcard photos, and the nine illustrations of The Nine Gates of the Shadows all play a part in Corso's evolving grasp of this puzzle.

The climax of the movie is visually stunning, although entirely expected. After all, the habitual cheating triumph of Satan in any bargain is well-known. The anti-climax, though—I know I didn't expect it, and you probably will not, either.

It's a rare thriller that I can stand to watch twice. The Ninth Gate, I bought on DVD. It's that good.

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