The audience first sees young Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth) as he’s falling off a cliff towards the camera. The voiceover of the 9-year-old boy informs us that he’s “the amazing accident prone boy.” Then the young boy takes us through his history of calamity in a quirky little montage illustrating the various forms of physical harm that he’s been subjected to over his brief life – electrocution, broken bones, and food poisoning among other ailments. This opening scene suggests that The 9th Life of Louis Drax, the new film from director Alexandre Aja, might be a whimsical little tale about a boy incapable of staying clear of harm. However, it doesn’t take long for The 9th Life of Louis Drax to dispel this notion as it devolves into a chaotic piece of self-serious storytelling that sheds each and every layer of its quirky charms as the film runs on and on.
Adapting the novel of the same name by Liz Jensen, the narrative of The 9th Life of Louis Drax bounces all over the place with little rhyme or reason as it’s unfolding. On one hand, there’s the story of Louis’ most recent accident that leaves him in a coma. The film takes us into his mental perspective while comatose, sometimes engaging in conversations with a Swamp Thing-like creature or narrating past events of his life, like his therapy sessions with Dr. Perez (Oliver Platt). Meanwhile, the film also explores the efforts of Dr. Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan), a coma specialist who soon finds himself infatuated with Louis’ case and develops a crush on his grief stricken mother Natalie (Sarah Gadon). Even further, Louis’ father Peter (Aaron Paul) is suspected in having pushed his son off the cliff that left the child in a coma, and everyone is interrogated by the icy Detective Dalton (Molly Parker).
All of the story threads ping pong back and forth in a manner that never coheres for the audience, as if the screenplay by Max Minghella is holding something back for a late reveal without the benefit of making us emotionally invested in what’s happening.
There’s undoubtedly some big ambition behind Aja’s film, but the execution never operates on the same level as its ambition. The way with which Aja and Minghella keep story details close to the vest diminishes the film’s intended emotional impact, rendering the film either boring or confusing for much of the film’s 90-minute running time. Its attempts at misdirecting the audience are clumsy, and the big reveals are more likely to inspire exaggerated eye rolls than surprise or emotional resonance.
The great weakness that The 9th Life of Louis Drax just can’t overcome is the deadly seriousness with which it handles its story. The opening of the film promises whimsy and quirkiness only to ditch that notion entirely once the opening credits are finished. As the film progresses from one incredibly serious scene to another, the film’s need for an injection of levity becomes astoundingly apparent. Don’t get me wrong, there are little chuckles that come from the film, mainly the interactions between Aiden Longworth and Oliver Platt, but they’re few and far between. Even the minor moments of humor are given a disservice by the scenes that follow, all of which feature performances that are stone-faced from actors on the verge of declaring, “I. AM. SERIOUS.” That’s not to say that all of the actors are dead weights in the movie, but they’re all handling the material with such a dour tone that it all comes across as incredibly off-putting.
Alexandre Aja’s camera is a lot like the plotting of The 9th Life of Louis Drax. It’s always moving around, often without little rhyme or reason. Much of the cinematography by Maxime Alexandre is garish, but its over-lit quality gives the film a dream-like sheen. That would work the film’s benefit in the hallucinatory sequences of Louis’ mind within the coma, but it works against the film when it’s scenes in a hospital of two people talking.
The 9th Life of Louis Drax is such a scatter-brained piece of filmmaking that its strengths quickly turn into weaknesses. You really want to root for this little film to coalesce into a compelling whole, but you’re left in the seat waiting and waiting for that moment to arrive, and when it does it’s entirely underwhelming. Alexandre Aja brings a lot of ambition to this adaptation, but seemingly leaves the novel’s structure intact at the sacrifice of cinematic qualities. There was potential for The 9th Life of Louis Drax to be something more than it is, but it just holds itself back in so many different ways.
The 9th Life of Louis Drax
Incredibly self-serious and all over the map, The 9th Life of Louis Drax is incapable of reining in all the ambition of director Alexandre Aja’s adaptation of Liz Jensen’s best-selling novel.