Contrary to what the title of director Alexandre Aja’s latest would have us believe, Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth) is no cat. He is, though, a terror, and not just for the way he rather perversely tells his mother, Natalie (Sarah Gadon), about a chance encounter between his father, Peter (Aaron Paul), and the man’s ex-wife after the boy was told to stay quiet. Natalie, it seems, has a delicate constitution. Scribbling innocuously eye-opening art in front of a psychologist (Oliver Platt), Louis displays the expert yet off-putting sassing skills of a RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant who doesn’t make it to the final three. But above all, he’s a headache to his parents for the way his body seems to welcome death. Having survived botulism, meningitis, electrocution, and more, he plunges off a cliff on his ninth birthday and lands in a coma, leaving two detectives to figure out the cause of the fall and a doctor, Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan), to bring him back to the land of the living.
The 9th Life of Louis Drax, an adaptation of a 2004 novel by Liz Jensen, reveals itself early and disastrously as a cluttered and calculated fantasy of hidden agendas, all misbegotten style and audience hand-holding. Having Louis hang on in a comatose state for almost the entire duration of the film gives Dornan at one point the chance to voice the child’s unconscious cries for help—a scene that feels arbitrary, and unintentionally hilarious, for the way the filmmakers fail to give expression to Louis’s sense of agency (the very reason for his need to communicate with the doctor in the first place), and for Dornan’s struggle to disguise his brogue. But the primary intent of having Louis remain unconscious for so long, like most of the story’s plot points, is to conveniently delay the revelation of the exact cause of the boy’s accident.
Every incident in the film is a time-bidding maneuver, completely and unimaginatively untethered from logic. Searching for the presumably missing Peter, Molly Parker’s Detective Dalton pays Allan a series of accusatory visits throughout that are at once canned, cruel, and befuddling, not least of which because the married doctor didn’t even meet Natalie, with whom he begins to carry an affair, until after Louis landed in the hospital. Meanwhile, in his state of limbo, the boy interacts with an initially ominous swamp thing whose true identity only becomes understood to him once we ourselves have grasped it. But the boy’s realization of this truth is completely stupefying, not just because he was witness to the fate of the swamp thing’s real-world embodiment, but also because the filmmakers don’t even bother to suggest that Louis, conscious or not, is suppressing the traumas of his life.
Guillermo del Toro would have certainly given Louis a clear emotional trajectory, a sense of the boy’s profound feelings for his swamp-thing companion, but Aja is content to have Louis and all his agonies and yearnings remain unknown, as such zapping the film of any poignancy. Louis’s unconscious purgatory, with its abundance of ever-glowing jellyfish, ludicrously suggests a Windows 95 screensaver given a CGI facelift. But Aja colors the land of the living, wherein Dalton emotionally terrorizes Allan as he tries to practice his medicine and struggles with his feelings for Natalie, in no less cloying ways: with a homogenized aesthetic that scans as a perversion of Douglas Sirk’s visually and thematically precise approach to melodrama. It’s a lazy pastiche that wants to trick us into thinking that there’s wit to how the film insultingly proffers the evil of matriarchal power as a punchline.