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Opening your film on the image of a child plummeting off a cliff, presumably to his death, is a fairly foolproof way of getting the audience’s attention. And Alexandre Aja’s hyper-stylized coming-of-age-movie-slash-fantasy-slash-psychological-thriller The 9th Life of Louis Drax excels at grabbing you with a steady stream of provocative and ornate images. But to what end, I’m still not sure.
The falling child is Louis (Aiden Longworth), “the amazing, accident-prone boy,” who tells us that he has, up to this point in his life, been bitten by spiders, accidentally electrocuted, stung by bees, had a chandelier fall on his crib and once “screamed so hard I stopped breathing for nine-and-a-half minutes.” Snippets of these near-tragedies are cutely presented to us onscreen as if they were scenes from a fable; director Aja excels at inventive framing and playful cutting. That vaguely lighthearted tone somewhat mitigates the horror. (Ridiculous, inadvertent ways that a child can be harmed? Such scenarios flutter across the terrified imaginations of every parent at some point.)
Louis doesn’t actually die. Instead, he lands in the ocean and winds up in a coma, with his distraught mother Natalie (Sarah Gadon) standing watch over him in the hospital, convinced that she can still communicate with the boy mentally. Coming to her aid is handsome Dr. Pascal (Jamie Dornan), a man with some revolutionary ideas. “I have a theory about the state you’re in,” he tells Louis. “I think some people don’t want to wake up until they feel safe.” Mom contends that the child’s lout of a dad (Aaron Paul), an abusive boxer, actually pushed the boy off the cliff during a family picnic. Now they’re concerned that dad, who reportedly fled the scene, might come back to finish the job.
Based on Liz Jensen’s best-selling novel, which I have not read, the film unfolds like a time-hopping psychotherapy session crossed with a fairy tale. We delve into troubled Louis’ past and flash back to his interactions with child psychiatrist Dr. Perez (Oliver Platt), to whom he strangely opens up, despite regarding him with suspicion. The boy’s mind is a place of contempt and self-loathing, all mixed with a child’s simplistic notions of right and wrong. Men are not to be trusted, Louis says, because they always hurt his mother, and we get brief, alarming glimpses of mom and dad’s messed-up relationship.
In the present, Dr. Pascal and mom get closer and closer — much to the concern of Mrs. Pascal (Jane McGregor). And in coma-induced dream visions, Louis speaks to a mysterious underwater figure who interrogates him with a voice not unlike Christian Bale’s Batman voice in The Dark Knight and slowly reveals himself to be a more sympathetic presence — a barnacle-covered shrink from the beyond, perhaps.
“Where the hell is this movie going?” you might ask, and that’s not an entirely bad thing. For much of its running time, Louis Drax manages to walk an impressive tightrope — feeding us just enough information to make us suspect that not everything is as it seems while using stylistic flourishes to mitigate the overall bleakness of its story. Every shot feels precisely composed and luminous. Patrick Watson’s score is lush and full-bodied, leaning into the melodrama. All that bravura filmmaking — the elaborate camera moves and colorful images and unexpected angles — is fascinating from both technical and aesthetic standpoints, and it certainly held my attention. But don’t be surprised if you start to suspect that, for all the film’s ornamentation, it might not be leading up to something revelatory.
As befits a film seen partly through the eyes of a coma patient, there’s an oddly somnambulistic quality to key performances. Some actors handle this better than others. As Louis’ mother Natalie, Sarah Gadon is a vision of hypnotic reserve — few young actresses working today can so rivet you while seeming to do so little. Jamie Dornan doesn’t fare quite as well. He appears to be sleepwalking through the part, which is oddly fitting, since at one point in the film he literally sleepwalks.
But the star here is the style. Most of director Aja’s previous features have been horror films, but he surprised me with his fascinating, if uneven, 2014 fable Horns, in which a distraught outcast (Daniel Radcliffe) became a demonic figure who could listen in on people’s deepest secrets. That film, too, perched between the playful and the horrific — at least until it came crashing down at the end. (One of Radcliffe’s co-stars, Max Minghella, is credited with the script for Louis Drax.)
Something similar happens here. Louis Drax feints at complexity, but as the story approaches its end — with its many twists and allegedly dramatic reveals — something more simplistic emerges, rooted not so much in the mysteries of the human heart and soul, but in narrative convenience and sleight of hand. What begins as an interrogation of a troubled child’s psyche, and the piecing together of a fragmented life story, winds up as something far more mundane: a faux-noir thriller with an empty, gotcha ending. It’s a lot of sound and fury … signifying something, but not quite enough.