PLOT: Louis Drax is a death-defying 9 year old known around town as the "Amazing Accident Prone Boy." When his latest mishaps land him in a coma, it's up to a neurologist named Dr. Pascal to unlock the mysteries of the boy's subconscious and prevent future disasters.
REVIEW: Hard to believe it's been thirteen years since French filmmaker Alexandre Aja pulled a pranksome rug out from us all with his duplicitous debut, HAUTE TENSION. Even more difficult to fathom is the trajectory of the Aja's directorial career path since, arcing from inspired originals, being intently pegged as the unofficial Hollywood horror remake man (HILLS HAVE EYES, MIRRORS, PIRANHA), and now to his most recent role as page-to-screen adapter. He went literary a few years back with Joe Hill's HORNS, to middling success, and now the returns are starting to severely diminish with his new film THE 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX - a maddening muddle of overambitious themes and disharmonic tones that are sure to dissatisfy more fans of Liz Jensen's celebrated book than it will sate. In the most basic terms, the movie unsuccessfully attempts to juggle too many genres at once. It wants to be a surreal childhood fantasy, a mysterious psychological thriller, a straightforward detective yarn, and a maudlin unrequited love story. Problem is, none of these aspects are executed terribly well on their own, and certainly don't unify or congeal together as a superior sum. No, aside from some gorgeous cinematography and some standout work from a few seasoned character actors, this is one disappointing LIFE!
Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth) is a nine year old boy who cannot avoid near-death accidents. In a crammed expositional back-story to start the film, narrated by Louis, we learn of all the various mishaps and death-styles Wacko Boy, as he's unaffectionately referred to as, has narrowly escaped over the years: electrocution, impalement, what have you. As a result of his most recent incident, Louis has been placed in a coma after falling off a northern California cliff during a picnic with his overly-doting mother Natalie (Sarah Gadon) and semi-alcoholic father Peter (Aaron Paul). All signs point to an accident, but when Louis is brought to a lavish hospital under the care of neurologist Dr. Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan), timelines shift, memories take hold, the kid's over-imaginative subconscious is explored, and soon we begin to question what really happened that ill-fated day Louis went tumbling into the Pacific. Was it truly an accident? Did the Louis deliberately jump? Was it his alcoholic father's fault? Or perhaps mama Natalie has something to hide? What gives?
Along to help us suss answers are Dr. Perez (Oliver Platt), a psychiatrist who holds droll one-on-one therapy sessions with Louis, and Detective Dalton (Molly Parker), a gruffly suspicious cop who doesn't quite trust anything in the case to be true. As far as plaudits go, the movie is at its most tolerable when Parker, Paul and Platt are onscreen, even if they share very few scenes together. Oliver Platt is damn near incapable of giving a bad performance, and for as small a part as she's given, Molly Parker lends the most likeably realistic turn in the entire film. She's the unimpressed skeptic of the lot, and serves as an important audience conduit in that regard. As for Paul, it's quite refreshing to see him play a father figure for once, a flawed one at that, but whose heartfelt devotion to his child was genuinely expressed and credibly conveyed throughout. Aside from one embarrassingly gauche fantasy scene inside a cave with Louis toward the end, Paul and Longworth flash some authentic familial chemistry that make most of their scenes work. Dornan and Gadon on the other hand? Diametrically opposed!
Honestly, there are three or four scenes in the movie - largely two-handers between Dornan and Gadon - that feel like something out of a cheap, weepy 50s Lifetime soap opera. Like, the worst of Douglas Sirk. Their sappily maudlin, unrequited love-scenes with all the requisite chemistry of a high-school dropout completely undo all that's good in the movie up until then. What we come to realize is that this romantic entanglement is merely a plot contrivance, one of the noirish femme fatale variety, meant only to throw our scent off what's really going on in the ulterior motivated mind of one of the parties. Fans of the book will know of what we speak, but because the final reveal doesn't come as much of a surprise (especially after Barbara Hershey's lone scene), the romantic red-herring seems not only sappy, but grossly unneeded. Perhaps casting more seasoned actors, not just a dude hot off a steamy blue-balls box-office hit (FIFTY SHADES OF GREY), would have been of greater service to the material. Either that, or perhaps first time screenwriter Max Minghella could of nixed the angle altogether, even at the risk of alienating fans of the book. Either way, Minghella can't quite cohere all the competing tones of the book onto the screen.
Indeed, a real issue the movie has is its lofty mixture of unsynchronized tenors. The disparate genres the movie wants to explore, the very same that surely made the book such an imaginative read, simply don't jive with one another onscreen, and as a result, we tend to float freely from flashback therapy scenes, underwater subconscious dream-states, present day police probes and the odious aforementioned romance. The cometing timelines are all so confoundingly edited, and sans a few scenes here and there, never captivates us as all that compelling. Even for the Young Adults I suppose this movie is meant for, it's likely to play as a little more than a befuddling bore. Even among horror fans, the only real ghastly tendril to grasp onto is a black, amorphous sea-monster that visits Louis during his comatose state, visually calling to mind a mix between THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and THE TOXIC AVENGER. But even that creature is sullied when revealed to be a grand metaphor for one of Louis' kin, in essence playing as a macabre fairytale more than anything else of truly terrifying note.