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Review: The 9th Life of Louis Drax

The 9th Life of Louis Drax

A genre hybrid, The 9th Life Of Louis Drax is better off in its individual incarnations rather than the sum of its parts. Adapted from the best selling novel by Liz Jensen, this is the tale of a young boy stuck in the in-between whilst back amongst the living, a renowned neurologist is trying to help him wake up from his coma and unlock the mystery behind the accident that got him there in the first place. 

Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth) is an accident-prone boy who’s been exposed to all sorts of accidents and diseases ever since the day he was born and yet he’s managed to survive so far. Now that he’s turning nine years old though he’s afraid that, just like cats, he’s about to run out of lives. The story in fact begins with Louis chronicling his latest accident, the one that could finally cost him his life. We witness the boy plunging into the Pacific Ocean from the top of a hill in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Louis is indeed pronounced dead by the neurosurgeon who tries to save his life but a few hours later in the morgue, the boy jolts back to life whilst lying on the autopsy gurney. It’s only an illusion though as Louis remains stuck in a coma and is taken to a special facility run by Dr. Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan), a renowned neurologist committed to studying coma patients to get to the bottom of the mystery behind that state and hopefully help them wake up.

Louis’ case, however, is much more than meets the eye and not just because of the mystery behind his apparent initial death. There is also an ongoing investigation for alleged foul play involved in the boy’s accident and the prime suspect of the attempted murder is Louis’ father, Peter Drax (Aaron Paul). The man, a former boxer, went MIA after the accident, leaving his wife Natalie (Sarah Gadon) as the only witness to the tragic event.

Liz Jensen’s novel alternates chapters either told by Louis from his comatose state or Dr. Pascal, who is trying to lead him out of the coma whilst navigating the dangerous waters of getting romantically involved with the boy’s fragile mother. The film’s screenplay, which marks the screenwriting debut of actor Max Minghella (The Social Network), son of the late great Oscar winning filmmaker Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), follows a similar structure. Louis’ voiceover illustrates the boy’s point of view on the events and gives us a window into his life before the accident whilst showing us the purgatory-like world he’s stuck in.

When not in Louis’ head, we follow Dr. Pascal, whose crumbling marriage receives the ultimate hit when he meets Louis’ mother and becomes smitten with the gorgeous and vulnerable woman. Natalie Drax immediately strikes us as unstable and in need of as much saving as her son’s so it’s easy to imagine how the attractive doctor can’t resist her languid looks and his saviour complex. But like in any good story, appearances are deceiving and things are way more complicated than black and white.

There are definitely a lot of grey areas in The 9th Life Of Louis Drax but the filmmakers don’t always master the sense of ambiguity required. Director Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes, Mirrors, Horn) is undoubtedly a diligently visual filmmaker but not exactly the most nuanced when it comes to character’s development. Fair enough he’s directing from a script he didn’t write this time, yet the film’s tone and pace inevitably depend on his lead and it feels like he doesn’t always master the unifying thread of the story. Initially developed by Anthony Minghella, it would’ve been interesting to see the late filmmaker’s version, given his sensibility for character-driven storytelling.

Part family drama, part psychological thriller with sci-fi and supernatural elements and part fantasy with vintage Tim Burton vibes, the film blends in Hitchcockian mysteries and atmosphere with the creepy magic realism of Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. All these elements sound great on paper but the director seems to do a better job when compartmentalising rather than getting to the point of the story as a whole.

Max Minghella’s script is rather solid as a work of adaptation. Having read the novel post-screening, there’s no denying his translation for the screen manages to capture and maintain the heart of the story despite logistical changes such as moving the events from France to San Francisco. The film also manages to convey the novel’s quality of a story that albeit set in a modern era, intentionally lacks period specificity and feels suspended in time.

Stylistically that’s one of the strengths of the film as it thematically ties in with Louis’ condition. He’s stuck between life and death and trying to figure out whether he wants to return to life or move on the whatever comes next. In this delicate journey he has a rather odd companion by his side, Gustave, a monster-like figure made of algae and hospital bandages, that quickly goes from disturbingly creepy to endearingly comforting.

The 9th Life Of Louis Drax lures you in with a mystery that (at least partially) you can figure out rather soon but it actually aims for the heart with a gut-wrenchingly moving storyline about parental love that transcends blood ties. That’s where the film works well and the main reason is the brilliant cast with charming young newcomer Aiden Longworth in the title role, the hypnotising and ever rising star of Sarah Gadon, a solid Jamie Dornan mastering nuanced self-humour and the underrated Oliver Platt, perfect as always in the role of Louis’ psychotherapist. But it’s a spectacular Aaron Paul who pulls your heartstrings like he has done many times on Breaking Bad and his performance alone is worth the price of admission.



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