THE 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Disturbing Images and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Alexandre Aja

Written by: Max Minghella

(based on the novel THE NINTH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX by Liz Jensen)

Starring: Jamie Dornan, Sarah Gadon, Aiden Longworth, Oliver Platt, Julian Wadham, Jane McGregor, Barbara Hershey & Aaron Paul

Alexandre Aja wowed horror fans with his tense gorefest HIGH TENSION and then went on to helm a couple of notable horror remakes (THE HILLS HAVE EYES, PIRANHA). In 2014, Aja slightly switched gears with dark fantasy HORNS. His shift from scares into fantastical thrillers continues with THE 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX. I don’t know what behind-the-scenes studio hijinks occurred, but I saw 9TH LIFE trailers in front of summer movies and it appeared that Aja’s latest outing was going nationwide. However, it has been dumped into an unspecified number of select theaters with no box office information available online. It appears that 9TH LIFE is already destined to become one of 2016’s more forgotten films, but that might be for the better. LOUIS DRAX is ambitious, curiously strange and does a handful of interesting things, but it also constantly drops the ball and frequently meanders to the edge of boredom.

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Based on the novel of the same name by Liz Jensen, this film is narrated by nine-year-old Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth). Though he’s been in this world for less than a decade, Louis’s existence has been filled with unfortunate life-threatening accidents and amazing recoveries. Louis’s latest misfortune has involved plummeting off a cliff, winding up dead for two hours, resurrecting and then falling into a coma. Dr. Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan) has been assigned to the young comatose boy and proceeds to investigate what may have occurred on the cliff, with Louis’s suspicious father (Aaron Paul) on the run and his mourning mother (Sarah Gadon) as a love-interest. From an out-of-body state, Louis watches the proceedings and tells his story to a strange sea monster.

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A kernel of a good movie lies somewhere within 9TH LIFE’s complicated layers and oddball missteps. The film has two solid performances, a somewhat successful fairy tale tone, and creative plot points. Though this movie has dark moments, it’s mostly guided by Louis’s innocent voice-over narration laying out the strange story. The writing is at its best during flashbacks of Louis’s earlier life. The scenes between young Aiden Longworth and Aaron Paul feel like they’re from a compelling, realistic family drama. To be fair, these are the only two actors in the film who seem to care about the material. The rest of the cast looks like they showed up for a quick buck.

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The lows of 9TH LIFE’s mixed bag acting are totally evident in Jamie Dornan’s phoned-in performance. Dornan slightly redeemed himself from FIFTY SHADES OF GREY embarrassment with tense historical-thriller ANTHROPOID earlier this year, but now, he has another dull-as-dirt character to make up for. The same can be said about Sarah Gadon as Natalie Drax, who mostly exists to make sullen facial expressions, unconvincingly serve as a seductress, and gloomily stand in the corner. At least Oliver Platt seems to be having fun as a strange psychiatrist, even if he only shows up for about ten minutes.

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The film’s whimsical tone, imaginative elements and interesting mystery are frequently drowned in a sea of bland would-be suspense and tedious pacing issues. Colorful atmosphere and vibrant visuals are seen in Louis Drax’s flashbacks and otherworldly experiences, while the hospital setting seems purposely washed out to the point of being downright ugly. The mystery being pieced together by Drax’s memories is a hundred times more compelling than watching Dornan’s generic doctor figure out that Louis obviously isn’t like other children.

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Not everything works about Louis Drax’s otherworldly adventure though, because a few fantasy elements occasionally seem awkward (that damn sea monster). Still, the audience is slightly rewarded, because these do mature into interesting plot developments. The script’s shaky tonal shifts, between dull hospital thriller and LOVELY BONES-esque fantasy, undermine the emotional impact of potentially powerful revelations. 9TH LIFE had me hooked to the point where I wanted to see what would happen next, but also dragged to a point where I wished that I cared more.

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THE 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX is an okay (at best) effort for Alexandre Aja. The film has creative moments, two solid performances and a few cool plot twists. However, these are frequently overshadowed by a dull-as-dirt glacial pacing, two phoned-in performances, and annoying melodrama. The visuals range from beautifully stylish to painfully washed-out, while the two very different storylines seem to be constantly at odds with each other. There’s enough quality here to recommend 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX as a drunken/sleep-deprived late-night cable viewing, but nothing else to warrant spending hard-earned cash or going to the effort of tracking a theater down. This is a mess. Granted, this film is an oddball one-of-a-kind mess, but it still remains a mess nonetheless.

Grade: C+

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