Film Review: The 9th Life of Louis Drax

Foolish throwback of a film about a comatose child and his psychologist who share a paranormal bond.
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There is new-fangled bad and there’s old-fangled bad. The 9th Life of Louis Drax is old-fangled bad and that’s good (relatively speaking), because at least it doesn’t pretend to be any more than what it is: cheesy hocus-pocus about the paranormal. It’s also a mystery and suspense thriller with a loud nonstop musical soundtrack cluing the viewer into (by turns) the creepiness, horror and shock of the unknown. The creative team admires persistence and volume in its score.

Based on the novel by Liz Jensen, scripted by first-time screenwriter Max Minghella and directed by Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes, High Tension, Mirrors), the film centers on Louis Drax (Alden Longworth), a precociously bright, accident-prone youngster who has suffered serious mishaps throughout his life, barely skirting death eight times. Like a cat, he has one more shot at it. Check out the title. Get it?

On his ninth birthday, Louis is with his parents picnicking on a cliff in Sausalito, California, when he tumbles (or was he pushed?) off the precipice several hundred feet into the water below. In the emergency room he is pronounced dead and wheeled off to the morgue. Just as he’s about to be autopsied (you know what’s coming), his eyes pop open, the terrified medical examiner staggering this way and that as the music tops a shrieking crescendo. Shortly thereafter, Louis slips into a vegetative coma.

Enter psychologist Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan), an expert in comatose states and highly attuned to sixth-sense experiences thanks to some personal trauma, though precisely what happened to him and why he boasts his, uh, particular skill set is never made clear.

For reasons that are equally unclear, he and Louis’ mother Natalie (Sarah Gadon) are drawn to each other and a torrid affair evolves while they sit watching Louis lying in his hospital bed, hooked up to machines, electrodes extending from his head. Much of the story is interspersed with flashbacks narrated by the half-dead Louis. 

We find out that Louis’ beloved father (Aaron Paul), who also mysteriously fell off the cliff on Louis’s birthday, had a turbulent relationship with Louis’ thin-skinned mom. Louis has been seeing a psychiatrist (Oliver Platt) and grasps with uncanny insight the nature of adult relationships, though he voices his observations in baby talk.

The story moves to the next plateau of suspense when Dad’s body surfaces—up until that point we don’t know for certain if he is dead—and suddenly various characters are receiving threatening letters, warning them of impending doom. Authorities convene to study the unsigned missives, concluding Louis is the author. It’s his childlike scrawl, his inimitable use of language and quirky tone. More frightening, the letters recount events that only he would know. The problem is that he’s comatose. Could somebody else be channeling him? And if so, who? It’s all very spooky, or intended to be.

In fact it’s just plain dull, though there’s a wonderful layer of unintentional high camp. Louis is haunted not simply by his terrible memories, but by a dulcet, occasionally guttural, echoing male voice trying to reassure him throughout much of the movie before materializing as Sasquatch or some such Quasimodo-like creature, covered in fur, lumbering about, hideous to look at and totally benign. He’s one adorable Big Foot. And well he should be. He’s Louis’ dead father, now in a new guise.

None of it really makes much sense, nor is it cohesive stylistically—it has a low-rent feel. Still, it’s always a pleasure to watch Oliver Platt, who gives an intelligent, three-dimensional performance as the psychiatrist. But he is wasted here. Longworth is dutifully frightening as the child wonder.

But most noteworthy is Gadon’s round-eyed stare that takes the glazed expression to a level of artistry, matched only by the collective faces of reviewers at a recent screening. One critic was not looking at the screen at all. His eyes closed, his head listing to the side, he was breathing through an open mouth. Reviewers exchanged no words in the elevator on the way down.

The 9th Life of Louis Drax leaves one speechless. It’s hard to say if the film reflects hard-nosed cynicism or a misguided labor of love or a little of both or neither. Yet no one can accuse it of being trendy or pretentious. There’s something to be said for that too.

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