All movies borrow elements of their predecessors to tell a story, but it’s rare for movies to broadly evoke genres of horror, family and mystery all in the same sitting (and no, I don’t mean The Conjuring). And yet that’s exactly what The 9th Life of Louis Drax valiantly attempts to do. The result? Imagine if Netflix’s Stranger Things, Gone Girl and Shutter Island had a lovechild.
Kid in protagonist role? Check. Suspicious female lead? Check. Lots of plot twists building up to a final reveal? Also check.
Based on the best-selling novel of the same title, the film stars a whole bunch of lesser-known actors, the most prominent arguably being Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame. Rounding up the cast list is 12-year-old Aiden Longworth, Sarah Gadon (if she looks familiar, that’s because she appeared as an A.I. in the Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Jamie Dornan – yes, the billionaire in Fifty Shades of Grey.
The movie starts off with a typical voiceover narration courtesy of Longworth’s Louis Drax, bringing you up to date through a series of flashbacks how he lost his first eight proverbial lives – one for each year – and how, in his 9th year and final life, he has come to be in peril once more. The word he specifically chooses to use is “accident-prone”. But as you sit there in the dark of the cinema, tossing popcorn into your mouth, you’re sure you didn’t just “accidentally” stumble into this theatre to watch an unresolvable coincidence.
But Director Alexandre Aja can’t quite seem to decide if he wants to trick or team up with the audience. While you sense some red herrings early on, instead of following the plot to unravel the mystery for yourself, you can’t help but be distracted by the chirpy narration of a boy who’s half-dead. Or the unaccounted absence of a major character. Or whether the slimy monster is Netflix’s idea of product placement.
Or even the fact that there seems to be no coherent mystery in the first place. Everything is so indecisively suspect that it becomes equal parts cliched and predictable. The film hops from one with medical and investigative backing to romance to fantasy to psychological thriller faster than you can say “Demogorgon”. Eventually, you just stop taking part in Aja’s Russian roulette of plot devices and can barely feign interest at the climax.
You can say the movie’s saving grace is in its aha! moment. But you’ve seen it happen time and again with Alfred Hitchcock and David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. Nothing new there. (Also: it was probably better in the book.)
So the movie’s true saving grace then is, in fact, Aaron Paul’s acting. Dornan is pretty boy specialist-researcher who makes unconvincingly bad life decisions; Gadon’s emoting so stiff and hair so perfectly coiffed she might as well be a mannequin; even Longworth milks too hard at the “intelligent kid” trope we all know too well. But Paul, who plays Louis Drax’s father Peter Drax, keeps his character nuanced and believable. As his arc develops, so do our feelings for Peter, and by the closing scene we are left deeply emotional.
If The 9th Life of Louis Drax were to be summed up, it is essentially about parental love with suspenseful and imaginative side plots. So Aja should thank his lucky stars that despite botching up the film’s priorities, it remains a watchable film only because it is propped up by Paul’s presence. Now if only he had more screen time.
Unfortunately, it’s too little, too late.