In the first moments of the joltingly awful fantasy / mystery The 9th Life of Louis Drax, a nine-year-old named Louis plunges off a high cliff into deep water, narrating his death and conversing with a deep-voiced creature that promises to figure out why it happened. That should be a shocking opening — Sunset Blvd. as filtered through Pan’s Labyrinth — except that it’s so clumsily handled. The stiff dialogue, garish special effects, and the almost whimsical tone make for yet another frustrating reintroduction to director Alexandre Aja, who’s blunted the gleeful nastiness of his early horror movies (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes) into tonally confused, baffling projects like Horns and Louis Drax. There’s a hint of Aja’s old love of shock-value horror in this film, but it’s blunted by syrupy fake sentiment, mismanaged twists, and half-baked plotlines.
Much like Horns, Louis Drax shoves magic and monsters into a story that’s already overpacked with grindhouse violence, a police procedural, a queasy romance, and incoherent social commentary. And much like Horns, it’s an adaptation of a book that had a stronger, more distinctive idea of how to handle the same material. Actor Max Minghella (who co-starred in Horns) makes his screenwriting debut with Louis Drax, adapted from Liz Jensen’s novel. But the conceits that work on the page — like Louis’ breathless, stream-of-consciousness narration, or his deep-voiced imaginary friend — are jarring and mannered on-screen. Filmmakers like Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro have drawn plenty of emotional power from ambiguity over which parts of a fantasy are real. Aja and Minghella barely consider the question, let alone turn it into a compelling mystery.
After that opening plunge off the cliff, Louis (Aiden Longworth) revives in the morgue after being dead for two hours. His resurrection, and the seaweed monster occasionally lurking around his coma ward, both suggest a supernatural angle to the story. When Louis' mother Natalie (Sarah Gadon) says he's an angel, she certainly seems to mean it literally. But a lurking, leering detective (House Of Cards' Molly Parker) thinks Louis is just a garden-variety child-abuse victim, especially after Natalie's estranged husband Peter (Aaron Paul) goes missing right after the cliff incident. And Dr. Allan Pascal (Fifty Shades Of Grey co-star Jamie Dornan) writes Louis' survival off as an unusual but plausible case of pediatric hypothermia closely resembling death. That still leaves Louis in a coma, though, with strange things happening around him.
The weirdest element, though, is Louis himself. He's a supercilious, hateful kid whose favorite phrase is a dismissive "blah blah blah," summing up everything he considers boring. He constantly, aggressively mocks his child psychologist, Dr. Perez (Oliver Platt), as fat and ugly. He crushes his pet hamster to death on-screen, justifies it as his right as its owner, and receives a new one. And he spouts twisted gender generalizations, with all the self-righteous surety of childhood. "He's a liar like all men are, and he plays the same games they play," he says of Pascal. Louis Drax embodies the worst fears of men's rights activists: Louis has clearly been raised as an unquestioning man-hater by an unchecked parent with an agenda. It falls to Dr. Pascal to defend male honor: "We're not all bad. Not completely," he tells Natalie. It's strange that Louis Drax doubles as #NotAllMen: The Movie. It's stranger still that the film barely mentions how Louis was indoctrinated into so many terrible beliefs, apart from grotesquely wallowing in the results.
That cavalier attitude toward cause, effect, and connection runs throughout the film. In a series of pre-coma scenes, Louis experiences a suspicious series of childhood accidents, unloads some of his more outré opinions on Dr. Perez, deliberately starts a vicious fight between Natalie and Peter, and spends loving, supportive time with Peter alone. But it's hard to place any of this in time. Eventually, a sort of natural narrative order suggests itself, but it's a bumpy road to an uncertain destination, frequently interrupted by shifts from fairy tale metaphors to scenes that don't involve Louis at all.
The worst of those is the implausible, ugly romance between Dr. Pascal and Natalie. Their hookup is a ridiculous subplot, and it's handled with some of the worst flirting since The Phantom Menace. ("The food isn't very good," Natalie tells Peter at a party, while standing in a kitchen, surrounded by a caterer's wet dream-worth of steaks and fancy cupcakes. "You caught me looking for snacks," he shoots back.) Alfred Hitchcock would have had a ball with the pathology of their relationship: Natalie is divided on how she feels about men, but she's drawn to them either way. Pascal is drawn by the vulnerability he chooses to see mapped over her blankly alluring Kim Novak chilliness. (It's very unclear how his wife works into the story, since she only appears in a few scenes, mostly to look jealous and baffled — with good reason.) Their conflicted, should-know-better connection is the stuff of cheap pulp novels and messy potboiler thrillers, and it belongs in a better movie, where it might be more than a weird afterthought.
Instead, it falls among the seaweed monster, Parker's hateful cop, and some clumsily foreshadowed psychic powers as one of Louis Drax's mismatched grab-bag of barely examined elements. So much is lost in this film's clutter, from any sense of the protagonist's humanity to a vision of the story that justifies all the random pieces, or brings them together. Louis Drax's forward motion relies on all its characters being angry and irrational, and rushing to judgment in the least productive ways possible. If that ever seemed like a deliberate, thoughtful choice, it'd make a strong central theme, exploring how people are blinded by their own assumptions, and how calm and a change of perspective can change the world. But there's nothing so consistent or coherent to The 9th Life of Louis Drax. It's even more of a mess than its poor mangled, hamster-murdering protagonist.