“Accident-prone” is how doctors describe the main character of “The 9th Life of Louis Drax,” a nine-year-old boy who’s survived nine near-death experiences. Louis has been electrocuted, stung by a swarm of bees, and had a chandelier fall on him as a baby, each time narrowly avoiding death to start a new “life.” Can a single child get into that many accidents, or are greater forces at work? That is the question looming over every frame of director Alexandre Aja’s mysterious thriller based on Liz Jensen’s best-selling novel of the same name. Though the movie skillfully straddles the line between the real and supernatural, it never delivers on its darkly intriguing premise.
After falling off a cliff into the water along San Francisco’s shoreline, Louis (Aiden Longworth) is pronounced dead at a hospital, only to miraculously come back to life two hours later and enter into a coma. The circumstances leading up to his fall, as recalled by his mother Natalie (Sarah Gadon), are murky, one of the first signs that she may have something to hide. Natalie and her estranged husband Peter (Aaron Paul) were celebrating Louis’s ninth birthday in a park when an argument escalated into a physical struggle, Louis fell over the edge, and his father disappeared. The police count him as the number one suspect in the apparent crime.
Louis’s condition becomes an obsession for Dr. Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan), an expert on comas who believes in the ability of patients to regain consciousness when other doctors have given up. “I think some people don’t want to wake up until they feel safe,” Pascal says. As Natalie develops an unusually close relationship to Pascal, we learn that Louis isn’t just accident prone — he’s also either gifted, disturbed or both. “He’s not like other children,” Natalie tells Pascal. “I think my son is an angel.”
It’s unclear whether Louis is blessed or cursed, but his run-ins with death have forced him to grow up much faster than the average nine-year-old, as revealed through his own narration that serves as one of the main windows into his character. Flashbacks to Louis’s sessions with his psychologist Dr. Perez (Oliver Platt) also shed light on some of the dark thoughts that cloud his mind, as do a series of dream sequences in which he talks to a mysterious sea monster. While this could all be in his head as he lies in a comatose state, aspects of his dreams reflect an awareness of what’s going on around him.
What all of this adds up to, however, is a mystery that keeps us guessing but fails to captivate, despite Gadon’s bewitching performance and Longworth’s charmingly cocksure Louis. There are several storylines vying for our attention, but none draw us in as much as the simple question of what led to Louis’s most recent “accident,” not to mention the eight others that came before it. Aja has a clear talent for suspense, creating a similarly haunting atmosphere to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” but the movie falters in its attempts to combine elements of romance, psychodrama and fantasy.
Visually, “Louis Drax’s” highly-stylized cinematography seeks to elevate the story at every turn, but with mixed results. Director of Photography Maxime Alexandre showers characters with a layer of white light that gives many scenes a dreamlike quality, helping to blur the lines between what is real and what is fantasy, but this has the effect of giving too many uneventful scenes a spooky glow. The underwater shots that represent Louis’s subconscious underscore the repeated motif of marine life, which is woven into aspects of the plot, but doesn’t serve any larger purpose.
One of the most deeply explored storylines in “Louis Drax” is the relationship between Louis and his father, a fact that gives the movie an added emotional weight considering the history of the project. Actor Max Minghella adapted Jensen’s novel for the screen after the death of his father, Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella, who was originally attached to write and direct the film. “Louis Drax” is Max Minghella’s first screenplay. The actor previously collaborated with Aja by starring in his 2013 fantasy-horror film “Horns” alongside Daniel Radcliffe.
“Louis Drax” ultimately builds to an unsatisfying climax that leaves you wanting more. The stylized dream sequences and flashbacks add color to the story, but not enough substance. Indeed, most of the main characters still feel a bit too much like strangers despite everything we know about them. After all the twists and turns, the secret to this mystery is still buried, but its appeal is pretty shallow.
“The 9th Life of Louis Drax” opens in theaters on Friday, September 2.