Review: ‘9 Fingers,’ a Gangster Tale, Is Missing More Than a Digit

Posted November 1, 2018 7:46 p.m. EDT

Back in the early aughts, the term “execution-dependent” was favored by big-money Hollywood executives who were calculating a movie’s chances of making a profit. A screenplay pitch might outline an ostensibly unstoppable concept, or, the thinking went, one that was execution-dependent: It would yield big returns only in a well-made film. This is a risible notion because pretty much all art is execution-dependent, despite the exceptional returns that some of the shoddiest pictures can yield.

The phrase sprang to my mind while I was watching “9 Fingers” because this French movie kept checking off a lot of my personal-taste boxes while never quite satisfying me. Shot in black and white (and even on genuine celluloid film), “9 Fingers,” written and directed by F.J. Ossang, relates its narrative without much back story or conventional connective tissue.

The film begins with a man on the run, dashing through a tunnel as car headlights pursue him. He jumps over a railing and into wet sand, then finds a dying man who hands him a package. The people behind those headlights catch up, capture him, drive him to a grand but ramshackle manor and make him part of their gang.

The man, Magloire (Paul Hamy) gets to know his semi-captors, and particularly one of the women of the house, the enigmatic Drella (Lisa Hartmann). He hears of fearsome criminal boss 9 Fingers, and is left behind as the fellows go on a daring caper. The heist goes wrong, and all of them take refuge on a cargo ship. “Welcome to hell,” its captain says as they board. The claustrophobia and the seeming inability of the ship to go anywhere bear out those words.

All of this, and the various literary references that pepper the script (Raymond Roussel and “Les Chants de Maldoror” get shout-outs), suggest that “9 Fingers” ought to be a nifty fever dream of a noir pastiche. But some striking scenes notwithstanding, this movie doesn’t achieve the delirium it aspires to. It’s often flat and tame, and obvious in the wrong ways: An addled gang member, Kurtz, charts a course to “Nowhereland,” for instance. But “9 Fingers” did hold my attention throughout because I was always hoping to like it more.

‘9 Fingers’

Not rated. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes.