Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, November 22, 2018

Director Report Card: Alexandre Aja (2016)

7. The 9th Life of Louis Drax

As someone who has been following Alexandra Aja's career for a while, I've seen one or two odd projects come across his IMDb page. There was that “Pet Sematary” remake, which is finally being made by an entirely different group. For a while, Aja was attached to a live action adaptation of classic anime “Space Pirate Cobra.” So when I saw something called “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” crop up as in development, I assumed it would be another one of those weird, unrealized project. In fact, the project would actually end up going before cameras, becoming the director's first non-horror film in quite some time. Despite being based on a reasonably well regarded novel by Liz Jensen, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” would attract almost no attention when it came out last year.

Louis Drax is an especially accident prone child. He has suffered nearly fatal accidents almost every year of his life, from being electrocuted when he was a toddler to having his ribs crushed as a baby. On his ninth birthday, he falls from a cliff into freezing waters. The shock seemingly kills him, before he receives and falls into a coma. Inside his own head, Louis constructs a fantasy world. It's made of his memories, primarily of his parents' troubled marriage, and clearly fantastical elements. In the waking world, his mother Natalie bounds with Dr. Pascal, the physician watching over the boy. When his father's dead body surfaces in a cave, a mystery starts to emerge.

From its opening minutes, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” hits you over the head with its quirky tone of magical realism. The first shot does an old-fashion iris out on the protagonist as he falls before an intentionally artificial green screen. The opening credits are done in a hand-written style, with various animals and critters illustrated around them. The score, which is trying so hard to sound like something from a Jean Pierre Jeunet movie, plays overhead. The entire first half of “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” feels this way. The montage devoted to Louis' history of injuries has that same energy, attempting to come off as eccentric and charming. Drax's dreams are full of whimsical elements, like a seaweed monster that sounds like Tobin Bell in “Saw” that he tells his life story too. It's all straining to capture a very specific tone that a hundred other movies have done better.

The first half of “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” is characterized by this quirky-for-quirkiness' sake atmosphere. The second half, however, makes a largely unexpected lurch towards mystery. Suddenly, the film is preoccupied with who is sending a series of threatening letters. Once the death of Louis' father, Peter, is introduced, the film becomes a full blown murder mystery. It's such an odd tonal shift, to go from whimsical to serious. It's almost like two completely different movies were awkwardly bolted together. Moreover, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” is not especially compelling as a mystery. The conclusion is easy to figure out. The clues do not add up in an interesting way.

It must be said, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” attempts to reconcile these two vastly different approaches. This solution is equally awkward as the divide itself though. There is no interior logic to the movie's magic-realism. The fantastical touches are not limited to Louis' dream sequences. Instead, Dr. Pascal starts to experience strange dreams too. He begins to practice automatic writing and sleepwalking. This thoroughly unexplained plot development reaches its ridiculous conclusion when Dr. Pascal is hypnotized, Louis speaking through him somehow.  Why or how does this happen? The movie does not explain it. It's just suppose to be magic, I guess, which is a good example of how sloppy the writing is.

In his horror pictures, Alexandra Aja often showed a fantastic and flashy visual sense. This is certainly on display throughout “The 9th Life of Louis Drax.” During those fantasy sequences, he gets to indulge in some of his most unusual images yet. Such as Louis floating through the water, approaches by the seaweed monster. Or a later sequence where glowing jellyfish circle him. However, the director's approach to the scenes in the waking world are less impressive. The hospital scenes are often washed-out and overly glossy. It's not flat, just unappealing.

I have no idea what attracted Alexandre Aja to this material. We can assume the filmmaker was hoping to try something else, to flex his directorial muscles a bit. However, there are times when you can definitely tell that “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” was directed by a horror filmmaker. That seaweed monster is certainly a bizarre touch and even stars in a jump-scare nightmare. There's another moment, a possible homage to DePalma's “Raising Cain,” were Louis leaps up in his bed suddenly. Louis' shrink seems to be a horror fan too. He decorates his office with giallo posters and Universal Monsters action figures. Even when handling a project outside horror, it would seem Aja can't help but from including a few callbacks to his usual genre

From one angle, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” would seem to be a movie about parenting. Bad parenting, that is. Louis' mom and dad fight constantly. His father, a former MMA fighter, has a temper. His mom, meanwhile, seems especially traumatized by the constant injuries her son has suffered. More than once, the boy retreats into his room. During a key scene, he types loudly on a typewriter in order to blot out the sound of mom and dad at screaming at each other. Louis resents all men, for the way the gender at large has mistreated his mom. Despite these scenes, the movie doesn't seem to be making any sort of solvent point about parenting or gender.

That is until the deeply dumb last minute twist. To top off its weird shift into murder-mystery territory, Jensen and actor-turned-screenwriter Max Minghella throw in a twist that is, honestly, offensive. Spoiler alert: Louis' mom has Munchhausen-by-proxy. She's been responsible for all of his injuries and even murdered her dad, events shown in the kind of revealing montage common to hacky thrillers like this. At that point, the movie takes a 180. The loving mom is abusive, the abusive dad is loving. Not only is this twist borderline misogynistic, boiling down to “bitches be crazy,” it is not a fair or realistic depiction of a troubled marriage. A complicated issue like this deserves a more nuanced take than this half-assed, black-or-white bullshit.

Yet even this is not the film's biggest problem. The truth is Louis Drax is simply not an appealing character. He likes to murder his pet hamsters, the filmmakers mistaking animal cruelty for a likable quirk. (Louis' parents don't seem to find this behavior distributing.) He has a smug side, frequently mocking or belittling the grown-ups around him. This becomes especially apparent in the overbearing narration Louis gives, which plays over most of the movie and explains every last thing about its themes. Aiden Longworth, a child actor with a number of credits, is not a strong enough actor to overcome these writing flaws. In fact, Longworth's delivery is often irritating and overly broad.

Aside from its unappealing lead character, “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” has a supporting cast of equally mixed quality. Jamie Dornan gets top-billing as Dr. Pascal, the coma expert brought in to work on Louis. Dornan's performance seems uncertain at, confused by by the material as much as the audience is. Aaron Paul, as Louis' father, has a few good moments. His interaction with Aiden Longworth is the only time the boy's performance seems genuine. However, Paul also plays the character as a soulless, raging monster at times. Sarah Gadon's performance as Natalie at least succeeds in making the audience feel sorry for her, even if it too rings false. Barbara Hershey has a small and somewhat cartoonish appearance as Louis' bitchy grandmother. Oliver Platt plays Dr. Perez, Louis' psychologist and the most likable person in the movie. This is mostly thanks to Platt's easy-going charms as a performer.

I didn't totally hate “The 9th Life of Louis Drax.” There are some clever touches. The sequence where the seaweed monster leads the boy into a cave is nicely spooky moment, once again suggesting Aja's experience in the horror genre. As mockable as the decision seems, a seaweed monster as the inner mentor that Louis explains his story to is certainly an interesting idea. (How it plays out, in a moment involving a thuddingly obvious bedtime story, I am less fond of.) There's also a scene in a Chinese restaurant featuring some really tasty looking food. I liked that.

I seem to recall “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” sitting on a shelf for a while. It's easy to see why. Not just because the movie isn't very good but also because it was pretty hard to sell. When released last September, I can't recall a single soul talking or writing about it. Having seen it now, it's definitely a misfire for Aja. The exceedingly muddled script lets down a filmmaker with some strong visual ideas or one or two clever conceptions. Aja's next movie, an awesome sounding crocodile thriller called “Crawl,” sounds like it'll return him to more comfortable territory. I don't think “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” will damage his career much, since so few people seemed to have actually seen it. [Grade: C-]

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