Roman Polanski is back and in very fine form with his dark, witty, suspenseful thriller about amoral New York book expert Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), who is hired by sinister book collector Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) to do some field research: Balkan owns an incredibly rare old book that is rumored to have the power to raise Satan from the fires of Hell. There are only two other surviving copies on earth; Balkan is convinced that only one of the three is authentic. So Corso sets out to Portugal and France to compare the other two copies with Balkan's and determine which is the real McCoy. Along the way he is followed, and occasionally saved, by a mysterious French woman (Polanski's wife, Emmanuel Seigner). As Corso's investigation deepens, he becomes aware that he is caught in some sort of bizarre Satanic puzzle. But who's behind it? Who is that mystery woman? And what secret is hidden in the books?
This is Polanski's first foray into "horror" territory since his whacked-out creepfest The Tenant in 1976, and he's picked up directly where he left off, particularly when the viewer is reminded of his earlier classic Rosemary's Baby, to which this film owes some affinity. In fact, in many ways The Ninth Gate feels like it was made 30 years ago – there's something wonderfully anachronistic (some would say timeless) about Polanski's style; instead of having his camera fly around the room with rapid edits, he takes his time, bringing the audience down deeper and darker along with his protagonist.
I do wonder, though, if contemporary moviegoers can even "get" Polanski at this point. He has such a distinctive approach to storytelling, constantly leavening his films with absurd moments, wildly over-the-top scenes, rich black humor, and a cleverness that only really hits you as you leave the theatre, especially after his typically low-key "twist" endings that don't seem to explain much at all until you're given time to reflect. In short, The Ninth Gate is entirely a European Art Film, albeit with sensationalistic trappings, and the post-Tarantino generation might fail to see its value. Which is a shame, as it's an expertly constructed thriller concocted by a long-misread master of the medium.