I admire director Alexandre Aja's recent willingness to try his hands at unique and offbeat material more than I enjoy it. Aja initially made a name for himself as one of the creators of the French New Extremity movement, a sub-genre of horror that pushed the limits of grim and violent storytelling. He followed his initial success with unintentionally (The Hills Have Eyes) and intentionally (Piranha 3D) schlocky horror remakes before moving onto Horns, an odd combination of romance, mystery, and horror that couldn't deliver a satisfying execution to its unique premise.
A similar issue plagues his new film, The 9th Life of Louis Drax, a wistful and whimsical adult fairy tale about Louis (Aiden Longworth), an accident prone abrasive little brat who tries to make sense of the surreal events that take place in his mind while he's in a coma, as the world outside tries to figure out the circumstances that put him in this situation. The authorities think the culprit who pushed Louis off a cliff and caused him to slip into the coma is his violence-prone father Peter (Aaron Paul), but as Allan (Jamie Dornan), the doctor in charge of Louis' case, begins an unhealthy relationship with Louis' melancholic mother Natalie (Sarah Gadon), he begins to realize that the answer might not be as simple as the police thinks. Meanwhile, Louis tries to figure out if a faceless seaweed monster (Yes, that's a thing in this movie) that infiltrates his mind wants to bring him back to life, or to drag him to death.
The biggest problem with The 9th Life of Louis Drax is the screenplay by actor Max Minghella, adapted from Liz Jensen's novel. Not only is Minghella's dry, on the nose dialogue and stilted writing constantly get in the way of possible organic story development, it also consist of a bunch of sub-plots that each belong in different genres and tones, without a cohesive vision to pull the whole project together. We get snippets of the adult magical realism of much better films like Pan's Labyrinth and the recent, terrific A Monster Calls, but the child character in this case is fairly insufferable both in terms of acting and character development, and there aren't enough scenes devoted to Louis' magical mind to delve into this psyche.
That's because the film's also crammed with a run off the mill melodrama about the forbidden relationship between the married Allan and Natalie, as well as a police procedural, with a mystery/thriller/whodunit thrown in for good measure. All of these tones and sub-plots battle each other for supremacy, leaving all of them underdeveloped and dull. The big reveal concerning the real culprit behind the attack on Louis can be seen coming from a mile away, thanks to obvious performances by Paul and Gadon. It's even bookended by a nod to the end of Psycho, where a psychiatrist practically gives the audience a breakdown of the specific condition the villain suffers from. A piece of advice: If you're going to rip off a sequence from Hitchcock's masterpiece, perhaps don't pick the one scene pretty much everyone agrees is annoying and overcompensating.
Aja employs an overtly bright and blown-out look for his film, making it mostly look like a soft focus 70s melodrama. This works during the romance sub-plot between the doctor and the mother, but more visual variety was needed for supposedly imaginative scenes that dove into Louis's mind. Especially compared to the endlessly inventive visual style of A Monster Calls, The 9th Life of Louis Drax falls short of its promise. The 1080p transfer recreates the look of the film in a clear and crisp way.
One might expect a wild, almost psychedelic sound mix from such a premise, but we get a fairly subdued DTS-HD 5.1 track that occasionally comes to life during brief sequences that take place in Louis' mind.
Making of: A glorified trailer in the form of a brief EPK.
The idea behind The 9th Life of Louis Drax is a lot more interesting than the flat and unfocused execution. It's admirable for Aja to keep trying to expand his limitations as a filmmaker, but he should also bring a clear and original vision to the table as well.