'The 9th Life of Louis Drax': Film Review

A convoluted mix of precious and creepy that quickly flatlines.
9/2/2016

Jamie Dornan plays a brain specialist trying to unravel the mystery surrounding a young boy’s coma in Alexandre Aja's psychological thriller.

There’s plenty afoot in The 9th Life of Louis Drax — medical crisis, family drama, illicit love, surreal visions — all of it sliced and diced through a jumble of tones. By the time director Alexandre Aja brings together the pieces with an illuminating pang of emotion, most viewers’ confusion will have given way to indifference. 

The cast, led by an uncertain Jamie Dornan under Aja’s uneven direction, often seem to be pingponging among different movies, from the darkly comic to the horror-tinged to the hard-bitten police procedural. Dornan plays a San Francisco doctor specializing in pediatric coma whose new case is especially tantalizing — for him, if not the audience. The afflicted boy seems to have psychic gifts. His intensely devoted mother (Sarah Gadon) is a stunner, fragile and wounded. Together and separately, they’re an all-consuming project for the unhappily married physician. 

What might be engrossing in Liz Jensen’s source novel is oddly opaque in this screen mishmash, and much of what’s meant to be tense or suspenseful is merely awkward. The lack of cohesion begins with the jarring shifts in Max Minghella’s adaptation of the book, one of the optioned projects on the slate of his father, Anthony Minghella, when the filmmaker died in 2008. Relocating the story from provincial France, the actor-turned-screenwriter interweaves the doctor’s increasingly obsessive behavior with the comatose boy’s thoughts and memories, delivered via voiceover and in fantasy sequences. 

Played with the prescribed mix of precocious, obnoxious and poignant by Aiden Longworth, the 9-year-old title character lies in the coma bay of Dr. Allan Pascal (Dornan) after plunging off a cliff during a picnic with his parents. His father (Aaron Paul) has gone missing, presumed on the run after pushing the kid into the icy waters that left him technically dead for a couple of hours. The injury is the ninth in a lifelong string of near-death traumas for the boy, who within his incapacitated state recalls key incidents from his family’s psychodrama (including one involving an odd product placement for the beleaguered SeaWorld brand). 

The bond between Louis and his mother, Natalie, both friendless, is unusually strong after all the dire emergencies the boy has miraculously survived. Sad-eyed and delicate, she hovers around his hospital bed — and around Pascal’s office, a femme fatale in the form of a broken-winged angel. While Louis’ survival remains in doubt, questions surface over whether the “accident-prone” boy has been harming himself or suffering abuse at his father’s hand. It’s a matter that his former psychiatrist (Oliver Platt) tried gingerly to unravel. Flashbacks to their therapy sessions are among the few convincing sequences in the film. 

Taking a more direct approach is the investigating detective. Molly Parker gives the role an entertaining toughness, but like the childish graphics that sometimes decorate the screen or Barbara Hershey’s blast-of-truth drop-in from a melodrama, it’s just another disconnected piece in Aja’s stylistic grab bag. His regular cinematographer, Maxime Alexandre, lends the proceedings a unifying visual quality with a saturated autumnal palette that recalls The Sixth Sense, as do certain plot developments, albeit without the shivers or depth.

Perhaps intentionally but all too distractingly, Dornan spends most of the film in deer-in-the-headlights mode, robotically drawn into the spell of Natalie, Gadon’s second damaged beauty of 2016, after her turn in Indignation. Natalie’s a wan version of a Hitchcock blonde, and there’s not the slightest hint of sexual fever between them. Though Pascal is meant to be a groundbreaking, TED Talk-giving neurologist, driven by a lifelong search for a “missing dimension,” the movie does nothing to make his supposed passion, unorthodoxy — or, for that matter, knowledge — persuasive. 

Like many a film noir sap (noir being one of the ingredients in Aja’s melange), Pascal’s something of a dullard. But he’s a dullard with no suggestion of an inner life, other than his pained awareness of the strain between him and his wife (Jane McGregor). There’s something cartoonish about the way he dons glasses only for driving or reading — seemingly the same pair. Ditto the way he segues from a deep hypnotic state to life-saving action in an emergency room. 

Moving away from his extreme-horror roots, Aja (Horns, The Hills Have Eyes) suggests rather than depicts the story’s violence. Louis’ disturbing confession about his pet hamsters is a notable example, and is probably the point when any viewers who still care whether he comes out of his coma are likely to stop caring. The film’s fantasy elements aren’t much more helpful. Louis engages with a gloppy, shapeless, gruff-voiced monster, a sort of seaweed-covered cousin of Groot. It’s a practical effect, involving a latex suit, obtrusive rather than captivating. In a scene that couldn’t be more belabored, Louis and the creature tell each other a fable that connects a number of the story’s dots. By contrast, a straightforward father-son exchange between Paul and Longworth provides the film’s one affecting moment. 

An intriguingly confusing aspect of Aja’s approach is that all of this seems to take place out of time. TED Talk notwithstanding, when a cellphone appears, it’s a jolt amid the retro vibe of Gadon’s throwback glamour and Rachel O’Toole’s production design. In the art-directed busyness of many of its interiors, the Drax house and the psychiatrist’s office in particular, Louis Drax achieves what it struggles elsewhere to do: It conveys a sense of churning drama that won’t be contained, and the idea of an unconscious boy’s still-active imagination.

Distributor: Lionsgate/Summit Premiere
Production: Summit Premiere and Miramax present a Blank Tape/Brightlight Pictures production in association with Fire Axe Pictures
Cast: Jamie Dornan, Sarah Gadon, Aiden Longworth, Oliver Platt, Molly Parker, Barbara Hershey, Aaron Paul
Director: Alexandre Aja
Screenwriter: Max Minghella
Based on the novel by Liz Jensen
Producers: Shawn Williamson, Alexandre Aja, Timothy Bricknell, Max Minghella 
Executive producers: Zanne Devine, Rosanne Korenberg
Director of photography: Maxime Alexandre
Production designer: Rachel O’Toole
Costume designer: Carla Hetland
Editor: Baxter
Composer: Patrick Watson
Casting: Maureen Webb, Colleen Bolton

Rated R, 108 minutes

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