Published Aug 31, 2016Adult-oriented (non-sexual) fantasy films are a tricky proposition. Often, they work wonderfully, allowing directors to bring the vivid visions of children to life while anchoring the visuals with a heavier story, and yet for every Pan's Labyrinth, there tends to be a Tideland. The 9th Life of Louis Drax falls somewhere in between.
The film's setup is ripe for adventure and visual exploration. When nine-year-old Louis Drax, who suffers from mental disturbances and a proclivity for near-death experiences, survives a cliff fall, he languishes in a coma while an acclaimed neurologist (Jamie Dornan) attempts to bring him back. As Louis's dad (Aaron Paul) is on the run due to his involvement with the fall, the rest of the film cuts back and forth between him and Louis's sessions with his therapist (the reliably affable Oliver Platt). Aidan Longworth shows spark and presence as Louis, handling the character's fractured mental state with confidence through the script's rude humour.
Director Alejandre Aja, best known for excelling at fraught nerves and blood geysers in 2003's Haute Tension and 2009's The Hills Have Eyes, seemed like an inspired choice to direct Max Minghella's adaption of Liz Jensen's best-selling novel, but his still-underdeveloped sense of nuance hinders the emotional potential of the story. It's worsened by Minghella's screenplay, which has similarly issue with nuance.
What's typically difficult to achieve in this type of fantasy film is a consistent and developing sense of mood and tone, and trying to fold a coming-of-age tale, psychedelic adventure, corny love story, murder mystery and more into the same film makes for uneven results that won't appeal to any particular audience. The intriguing set pieces visualizing Louis's coma state are offset by the overstuffed drama in the real world, and are hampered by ham-fisted dialogue and erratic pacing. The performances vary, as well: Aaron Paul hits the same emotionally vulnerable notes used in his Breaking Bad performance to elevate Louis's dad, but Jamie Dornan seems incapable of exhibiting even a hint of charisma.
It's a strange feeling to have so little to recommend about a film while still admiring the filmmakers for even attempting to adapt such a mess of a story. But then, nobody said making fantasy films for adults was easy.