REVIEW: The 9th Life of Louis Drax [2016]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 108 minutes | Release Date: September 2nd, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Summit Premiere
Director(s): Alexandre Aja
Writer(s): Max Minghella / Liz Jensen (novel)

“More than all the fish in the sea”

Ten years after Anthony Minghella optioned Liz Jensen‘s The 9th Life of Louis Drax to develop cinematically, it was his son Max who saw it begin production. The younger Minghella’s first credited screenplay, probably brought to director Alexandre Aja on set of their previous collaboration Horns, it would ultimately take another two for the finished film’s release. If I were to wager a guess as to why I’d say the distributors found themselves painted in a corner unable to figure out how to sell it. Rated R for reasons that probably could have been cut to earn a PG-13 if desired, the story arrives from the viewpoint of a nine year-old boy—his dark fantasy delivered in a way that feels perfectly primed for teenagers rather than adults.

Young Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth) is an original. He’s smart, perceptive, and extremely accident-prone from the womb. He tells us a history of run-ins with a caesarean saw, chandelier, food poisoning, and worse—each ordeal capped by the loving smile and embrace of his mother Natalie (Sarah Gadon). His latest tragedy, however, isn’t so easily explained considering it results in a hospital stay. Fallen from a steep cliff into hyperthermia-inducing water, Louis is pronounced dead for two hours before a miracle brings him back. It’s a voice, a faceless monster speaking to him from a place of familiarity, that announces his ninth (and final) life would soon begin. His body may be in a coma, but his mind still races to help explain the mysteries of his past.

On the outside are his distraught mother, missing father (Aaron Paul‘s Peter), and worried doctor (Jamie Dornan‘s Dr. Allan Pascal). Louis is alive and Pascal may be the only person willing to go the extra step to see that he wakes up. The relationship that forms becomes a slippery slope, though, as Natalie’s affection seeps into his already troubled heart. Despite a wife at home (Jane McGregor‘s Sophie), Pascal finds himself spending more time at the hospital with the boy and his mother. Dreams begin to connect him with the former as lust bonds him to the latter. He starts to make things personal as Detective Dalton (Molly Parker) stirs the pot and Peter’s mother (Barbara Hershey) seeks to expose a pattern. Events aren’t quite as they appear.

On the inside are Louis’ memories lending insight into how he ended up in this bed. We see happy times and sad; high drama provided by Peter’s former love and the boy’s concerned psychiatrist (Oliver Platt‘s Dr. Perez). There’s candidness in Louis well beyond his years, an intuition opening him to the sadness threatening to consume their family’s former joy. Names that children his age spew aren’t far off the mark considering he’s a weird little kid prone to killing pets and educating himself on topics an nine-year old doesn’t need to know, but beneath the combative façade is a kindness never to be dismissed. Louis obviously loves his father and his father him, so talk that Peter attempted to kill him ring false. But what did happen?

This is the question the story poses, one that can only be answered by both the conscious and subconscious worlds working together. Absurd ideas about Louis communicating from his mind are posed as evidence arrives which cannot be explained. Events occur that are soon revealed to be eerily similar to those which happened before, each one altering the motives we had believed into those we wouldn’t fathom to be true. It’s the type of dark mystery readers love to pick up for taut suspense, a page-turner where details can be shrouded in a sea of words without appearances deceiving the liars yet to be exposed. This kind of story is difficult to bring to life onscreen because you must adhere to the truth despite trying to conceal it.

Unfortunately the truth of The 9th Life of Louis Drax quickly becomes evident because there aren’t many suspects. Once irrefutable facts come to light, common sense dictates what’s going on. This is why I’m so confused by the rating. The journey is intentionally transparent to allow its underlying pain and psychological hardship to trump its mysterious plot. It’s less about discovering who the bad guy is and more about relating to the boy who’s endured such sorrow so tragically. Minghella and Aja present the tale to a disenfranchised youth feeling alone in a world run by complicated adults who don’t always have their best interests at heart. And the justifications given for those adults’ actions come from a child’s mind—something we see as cutely astute rather than poignantly shocking.

When the monster’s identity is revealed we feel for the boy and we nod our heads in acknowledgement of the deep trauma that had been masked by love when the climax brings its difficult truth. Everything clicks into place to see what’s come previously through a new lens of clarity—right before Aja shows it in a way that exposes his insecurity in the script being successful enough to imply it. This again is a maneuver for teenagers who may not have the life experiences to go to that place themselves. Since the film is from Louis’ perspective these blatant revelations are relevant to him as explanation, but in an R-rated movie kids his age can’t see that position is irrelevant. We don’t need it so supplying it creates ill will.

The whole is constantly tinted this way, its twists and turns shown with an air of artifice that would play brilliantly with a younger audience. If this were a PG-13 film I would have accepted the choices rather than felt as though the filmmakers didn’t trust my intelligence. Louis’ life exists in black caves of the subconscious, prisons formed from fantasy to shroud the living nightmare of reality. Aja appears suited to delve into those aspects with an adult psychological horror that scares, but he has us sympathizing with the characters instead. It wants us to forgive the real monster, humanize it from a position of coping. Maybe I just wasn’t expecting such optimism. It’s a good film that might have been great by embracing its inherent terror.

[1] Peter Drax (Aaron Paul, left) and Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth, right) in THE 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX. Photo credit: Summit Premiere.
[2] Natalie Drax (Sarah Gadon) and Dr. Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan) in THE 9TH LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX. Photo credit: Summit Premiere.

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