Alexandre Aja has gone soft. Since breaking out internationally with his grimy exploitation shocker High Tension in 2003 and then following it up with stylishly brutal remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha, the French filmmaker has gotten sentimental in recent years. His last film, the Daniel Radcliffe starrer Horns, had an intriguing and clever first half that eventually gave way to a mawkish and trite third act driven by dumb romantic shenanigans. And now Aja veers even further in that direction with The 9th Life of Louis Drax, adapted from a novel by English novelist Liz Jensen.
Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth) is a young boy with a peculiar condition. Ever since he was a baby, he’s been on the receiving end of numerous freak accidents and illnesses, from common physical injuries to electrocution to numerous bouts of food poisoning. And yet while most of these have near-fatal consequences, Louis always emerges unscathed. That is until he goes on a birthday picnic with his separated parents (Sarah Gadon and Aaron Paul) and ends up falling off a steep cliff into the water below. Yet again, he doesn’t die, but he is left in a serious coma to which he may never wake up from. On top of this, Louis’s father has disappeared and is suspected of being the one who pushed him off, prompting a massive police investigation.
Enter Dr. Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan), a neuroscientist who takes on Louis’ case. As he tries to piece together the mystery surrounding Louis’s fall, he starts to experience strange phenomena, while also entering into a risky affair with Louis’s mother. Meanwhile, Louis himself struggles to reach out and communicate with Pascal from the subconscious world he’s stuck in.
As you can see, The 9th Life of Louis Drax throws a lot at you. Cutting in alongside the main storyline are flashbacks, memories, dreams and fantasy sequences, giving Aja fertile ground to play around in. At any given time, the film is something different – a mystery, a love story, a police procedural, a supernatural horror fantasy, a drama about a broken home, a dark comedy.
But this is where the problem lies. There are so many different tones and story threads crammed into the 108 minute running time that little of it has any effect. And then Aja’s insistence on pushing the sentimental moments of the story to their extremes results in a sappy, overblown mess of a movie that keeps trying to convince you of an emotional impact that never feels genuine.
Not all of the blame can be laid at Aja’s feet, however. Max Minghella (the actor from Art School Confidential, The Social Network and Aja’s Horns, and son of late director Anthony Minghella) makes his screenwriting debut here and has trouble translating this unwieldy story to the big screen. He slams scene next to scene with little narrative flow, like there’s some mad rush to get to the end, and the dialogue is banal at best and cringe worthy at worst. The romantic fling between Dornan and Gadon’s characters, for example, is far ickier than I assume it should have been if given more time, especially considering that Dr. Pascal has a perfectly nice wife in the background that has done nothing for him to consider cheating. When he aggressively pursues Louis’ mother out of the blue, it makes his character deeply off-putting when it should be an interesting plot development. Nothing is ever earned because there’s no space to earn anything.
Granted, a better actor may have been able to make this kind of character behaviour work. Jamie Dornan, however, is not that actor. I’m not sure what kind of erotic heat he brought to Fifty Shades of Grey (I haven’t seen it) but he’s as bland as they come here, struggling with an American accent and acting as if he took tips from General Hospital. Sarah Gadon and Aaron Paul fare better with the material but there’s only so much they can do with what they’re given, which is too bad since their dynamic, played out in flashbacks, holds enough interest to deserve being pursued further.
In the end, it’s hard to know what kind of audience The 9th Life of Louis Drax is made for. With the precocious child protagonist and the fact that he annoyingly narrates a large chunk of the movie, it seems at first like this is a family film. But the violence, coarse language and sexual situations classify it decidedly as a film for adults. And while the literary prestige attached and the focus on strong dramatic points could have tried to position for year-end awards consideration, the genre elements are sure to turn those viewers off. But genre fans won’t buy the sentimental crap for a second.
The climactic revelation of the film further complicates matters. Rather than affecting us, it just throws into question what the hell the whole point is. What you’re supposed to take from this convoluted story is anyone’s guess, but I’m sure Aja just wants us to feel something… anything – preferably of the warm and fuzzy type. But in his trademark films, Aja already made us feel things – fear and disgust and excitement and hopelessness. All of which is better than what I felt with Louis Drax – nothing.