Director Alexandre Aja made a name for himself with horror films so wall-to-wall bloody that they looked like the cinematic equivalent of infected wounds: films like his The Hills Have Eyes remake and Mirrors gave their freshly opened cuts and injuries a very tactile feel that induced wincing in a way few equivalent gore flicks do. Now, however, he seems to be adapting the tactics of a politician. Having thrown red meat to the base to gain their approval, he’s trying to pivot towards the general audience, not by abandoning horror completely, but keeping some of its elements in the service of new genre exploration. The model for this sort of thing is obviously Guillermo del Toro, who went from horror to fairy-tale/fable, and then to all-out sci-fi in Pacific Rim (Aja’s next project after this one, incidentally, is entitled Space Adventure Cobra).
So following 2013’s Horns, which played a demonically endowed Daniel Radcliffe for twisted laughs, Aja’s moving toward the fairytale/fable, and The 9th Life of Louis Drax feels very much like his shot at a Pan’s Labyrinth. Unfortunately it only earns this comparison in effort, rather than execution.
Before the movie gets to its del Toro-like content, however, there’s a beginning straight out of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, in which young Louis (Aiden Longworth, who played young Rip Hunter on Legends of Tomorrow) whimsically recounts all the times he has nearly died due to unlucky accidents and brushes with food poisoning. It’s the latest brush with the reaper that has gotten us to where things begin now, as he’s taken a long fall off a short cliff into deep water, and wound up in a coma. In this state—which sometimes keeps him in dreams, and others allows him to see everything that’s going on as if astrally projected outside his body—he tells his life story to a monstrous, demonic-sounding voice, the source of which is one of the film’s big reveals (which I won’t spoil here).
Based on a novel by Liz Jensen (one set, ironically, in France, though French director Aja has reset it in America), Louis Drax employs a device that probably plays better on the page than it does here: a split-perspective between two main characters, the other being Jamie Dornan‘s Dr. Pascal, who treats the miraculously still-alive-yet-unconscious boy. Movies tend to fare better when they’re clearly one character’s story (you can find exceptions, but they are usually the work of master filmmakers), and alternating the stories is especially jarring when they’re so stylistically different. Louis narrates his scenes, which are photographed with clarity and detail, while Dr. Pascal’s bits are presented more straightforwardly, but with a dreamlike, glowing sheen on every light-reflecting surface. It’s nice that Aja put the thought in to make them visually distinct, but in a movie, having narration come and go isn’t so clearly read as a change in perspectives. If Pascal had an inner monologue too, or Louis had none, the shifts would likely be easier for the viewer to make. Aja’s role model for this should maybe have been Terrence Malick rather than Guillermo del Toro.
Aaron Paul is a highlight of the movie as Louis’ well-meaning, poorly executing father, while Dornan also looks like he’s trying to pivot by playing the opposite of Christian Grey—passively falling into an accidental affair with Louis’ mom (played by Sarah Gadon as a potential femme fatale) while timidly investigating the strangeness of the boy’s condition. Longworth’s fine as the kid; this is one role where the usual precociousness of child stars really matches the character well.
In the end, though, The 9th Life of Louis Drax doesn’t quite cut it as a fable, with a finale that’s too literal and undermines the possibility of multiple interpretations. I admire Aja for trying to stretch beyond his comfort zone, but that admiration does not extend to my telling you to buy a ticket.
Rating: 2 out of 5 burritos.
Featured Image: Summit Entertainment
Luke Y. Thompson is a movie critic/Nerdist’s weekend editor, and is 98% certain his own comas would be poetic. Follow him @LYTrules.