Friday, September 2, 2016

The 9th Life of Louis Drax: Deserves a quick death

The 9th Life of Louis Drax (2016) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for dramatic intensity and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

Those who’ve ever wondered about the degree to which a single guiding hand can influence a project, need look no further.

By all indications, young Louis (Aiden Longworth) and his father Peter (Aaron Paul) deeply
love each other. But appearances can be deceiving, and this particular family dynamic
includes quite a few uncomfortable secrets.
This is a textbook example of how a bad director can ruin a film.

Mind you, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Several of the primary actors deliver entirely wrong readings of their characters; the story’s overall tone is completely wrong; and there’s no consistent point of reference for viewers to grasp.

But while multiple individuals can be faulted, it all comes down to the guy in charge, in this case Alexandre Aja. He failed to draw better performances from his cast; he couldn’t maintain a consistent atmosphere; and — most crucially — he clearly didn’t understand the material, and didn’t have the faintest idea how to present it properly.

Because — and this is the sad part — there’s clearly a decent story buried in the wreckage of this film. Actor-turned-scripter Max Minghella took a respectable shot at best-selling British author Liz Jensen’s 2004 thriller, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, and the results could have been much, much better. But Aja’s crude sensibilities lie in the realm of gory horror such as Piranha 3D and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes; he lacks the sensitivity required for a tale that requires such delicate handling.

In fairness, the premise is challenging. The story is told (mostly) from the point of view of a 9-year-old boy in a hospital coma ward, and Aja spends much of the film immersing us in the ongoing care of coma patients; that’s a tough, depressing sell. It may have been mostly unusual and intriguing in Jensen’s book; confronted with cinematic visuals, it’s heartbreaking ... and difficult to surmount, as the narrative progresses.

But Aja makes his first significant blunder even sooner, during a prologue in which young Louis (Aidan Longworth) matter-of-factly shares his back-story, growing up as an accident-prone kid who — to his parents’ horror — endured all manner of freak calamities during his tender years. This weird flashback montage is off-putting and fairy tale-esque, with cartoonish touches that suggest we’re in for some sort of fantasy: a notion reinforced by the introduction of a grotesque, deep-voiced sea creature who seems to be the boy’s spirit guide.

But this isn’t a fairy tale, or a parable, as eventually becomes clear; it’s a mystery. Sort of. Maybe. Or perhaps it’s a suspense thriller. Aja obviously can’t decide.

As Louis’ mother Natalie (Sarah Gadon) looks back on events, she figures that her son has survived eight near-death accidents throughout his sad, unlucky life. Cats have nine lives, she tells her son at one point, so try not to use up your last one. Alas, fate intervenes: A family picnic to celebrate Louis’ ninth birthday ends in tragedy, when the boy plunges off a steep cliff and into the wintry ocean below. His little body battered by the fall, he’s pronounced dead by attending ER Dr. Janek (Julian Wadham).

But Louis briefly regains consciousness in the morgue — ghastly thought, that — only to slip into a coma. That brings him to the attention of neurologist Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan), who has radical beliefs about what might be taking place within the unconscious minds of coma patients.

Real-world events intrude. Louis’ father Peter (Aaron Paul) is missing; under duress, Natalie admits that he pushed the boy off the cliff, and then fled. She fears for her own safety; during the subsequent investigation led by police detective Dalton (Molly Parker), disturbing details emerge, revealing Peter to be a violence-prone alcoholic with a hair-trigger temper.

The overall family portrait is shaped via multiple points of view. We get considerable information via flashbacks supplied by the comatose but still very aware Louis: seminal childhood moments, good and bad; happy occasions shared with one or both parents; and sessions with child psychiatrist Dr. Perez (Oliver Platt), with whom the boy spent several months, as a last-ditch effort by desperate parents seeking a reason for his “unlucky” tendencies.

Which raises a fresh question: Has the boy simply been harming himself, consciously or otherwise?

At the same time, Dr. Pascal has been gathering information from the distraught and fragile Natalie. Additional facts emerge slowly, struggling past her embarrassment and personal barriers. Dr. Pascal eventually liaises with Perez; notes are compared.

Most unusually, though, Dr. Pascal begins to sense a personal bond with the comatose Louis, as if the boy’s active brain might be reaching out to him, somehow, in an effort at communication. This is pure science fiction — dating back to hoary chillers such as novelist Curt Siodmak’s 1942 classic, Donovan’s Brain, which has been filmed (or referenced) countless times — but it’s also the most intriguing part of the story.

Or it should be, anyway. But no: Aja submerges this potentially fascinating plot point beneath the ludicrous relationship that develops between Natalie and Dr. Pascal ... which is where this film goes completely off the rails.

Okay, so Pascal initially feels sorry for Natalie, comforting her with kind words and hugs. Reasonable enough. But Dornan isn’t nearly skilled enough, as an actor, to sell the notion that such an otherwise intelligent doctor then would behave like an undisciplined 15-year-old with a crush ... and Gadon’s handling of Natalie’s reaction is equally clumsy.

Their first kiss produced snickers and catcalls from last week’s preview audience, and no surprise; the entire concept, as presented, is preposterous. From this point forward, we’re saddled with a classic case of the “idiot plot,” in which the narrative advances only because each and every character behaves like an idiot at all times.

Parker’s reading of Detective Dalton is equally bizarre; the woman conducts her interrogations with a constant smug scowl, as if she knows that everybody is lying, and can’t wait to reveal The Actual Truth. Which might make sense if her presence meant anything, but no; Dalton never actually investigates anything, preferring to simply harass people. And she plays no part in the final, climactic reveal.

Louis’ shambling, seaweed-encrusted “invisible friend” also is a major miscalculation: a concept bungled by a dreadful costume that looks left over from one of Roger Corman’s ultra-low-budget 1950s monster flicks.

Granted, it’s difficult to enter Louis’ mind — in the same way that readers can do, so effortlessly, in Jensen’s novel — but this was no solution.

Mostly, though, Aja and Minghella fail in their most important task: to credibly present a child’s point of view. We’ve recently seen two films — Room and the remake of Pete’s Dragon — that handled this brilliantly, thanks to sensitive direction and two skilled young actors (Jacob Tremblay and Oakes Fegley, respectively). Longworth, although cute and precocious, isn’t in their league.

And even if he were, Aja apparently couldn’t have drawn the necessary nuances from the boy’s performance.

Platt, on the other hand — obviously talented enough to rise above the absence of guidance — does a fine job as the sensitive and slightly comic Dr. Perez. Wadham also makes a strong, sympathetic impression in his smaller role as Dr. Janek, and Barbara Hershey shines in her third-act appearance as Louis’ grandmother.

It’s refreshing to spend time, however brief, with actors who know what they’re doing. Too bad the film is dominated by Dornan and Gadon.

The 9th Life of Louis Drax is a mess. A story that should be sensitive, poignant, suspenseful and fascinating — the latter regarding the mysteries of the human brain — is merely pathetically contrived and stupid.

Such a shame.

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