You have to give director Alexandre Aja credit for moving beyond the gore-soaked pictures of his early career—beginning with “High Tension” and running through “Piranha 3D”—into more intriguing fare like “Horns” and now “The 9th Life of Louis Drax.” But praise has to be limited, since both of the films are what are best referred to as interesting failures.
“Drax,” adapted by actor Max Minghella (and in this case, producer) from a novel by Liz Jensen, is narrated, “Sunset Boulevard” style by Louis (Aiden Longworth), a kid seriously injured in a fall from a cliff while he and his parents Natalie (Sarah Gadon) and Peter (Aaron Paul) were having a picnic to celebrate the boy’s ninth birthday. While he lies in a coma under the care of handsome Dr. Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan)—a coma expert called in by a colleague (Julian Wadham) who’d initially pronounced the boy deceased—Dalton (Molly Parker), a hard-nosed police inspector, searches for Peter, who has vanished, leading to the suspicion he might have tried to kill his son. Meanwhile Natalie hovers about the hospital, the concerned mother, and Allan soon becomes infatuated with her, leading his wife (Jane McGregor) to suspect that he’s being unfaithful.
For a coma victim Louis is an extraordinarily chatty kid, who tells us—complete with flashbacks—how he’s always been accident-prone, nearly having died on many occasions from food poisoning, falling chandeliers and electrocution. He also reports on the tension between his parents (in which he played no small part after informing his mother that during a quality-time outing Peter had run into his first wife), which resulted in their separation; on his sessions with an avuncular therapist, Mr. Perez (Oliver Platt); and on his reputation at school as a “wacko boy,” a description that might seem appropriate given what he reveals as his unusual attitude toward his pet hamsters. Still, his precocious character comes across more as endearing than as strange—if only just.
But peculiar things do start happening as his condition persists. Most of them involve Dr. Pascal, who begins having dreams about a Swamp Thing-type creature that, it’s eventually revealed, is haunting comatose Louis’ consciousness as well. The doctor is also implicated in a couple of hand-scrawled letters that claim to originate with the boy, though he obviously couldn’t have written them. And then there’s Peter’s mother Violet (Barbara Hershey), who shows up at the hospital, blaming Natalie for all the misery that she brought into her son’s life. Eventually the mystery of what happened to Louis on the ledge that fateful day is resolved, in a fashion that like so much in the story mixes the mundane with the supernatural.
That denouement feels as if it’s being played at the very edge of deadpan genre satire—a quality one might sense at other points in the movie as well. Certainly Minghella and Aja can’t expect us to take it as an entirely serious affair. Yet the absurdity is never taken as far as it was in “Horns” (in which Minghella had a major role, though it was adapted by other hands), and the tonal shifts between oddball quirkiness and potboiler cliché are never satisfactorily patched over, and when the ending rolls around, you might think you’ve been watching a spoof version of “If I Stay.”
Still, the picture has been handsomely made, with Maxime Alexandre’s lustrous widescreen cinematography capturing the felicities of Rachel O’Toole’s production design, while Patrick Watson’s score deftly adds some lush aural underpinning to the visuals. And the performances are fine once one gets past Dornan’s vacuously befuddled physician and Gadon’s blandly blank mother. Longworth certainly nails the weird vibe Louis emits, and Platt engagingly rumpled; Paul, meanwhile, conveys the divide between compassion and menace in Paul that’s necessary for the character to serve as a red herring in the plot, and it’s always good to see Hershey back on screen, even if her angry grandmother turn is little more than a glorified cameo. Parker appears to be emulating Juliette Lewis’ stern cop from “Secrets and Lies,” but she does it well.
It’s reported that the late Anthony Minghella, Max’s father, was interested in adapting Jensen’s novel for the screen. What he might have done with it must remain conjectural, but one suspects that the curious mixture of film noir and fantasy would have challenged even his talents, and Aja is not in his league.