Photo: Summit Premiere

The 9th Life Of Louis Drax is a pitch-black psychological drama disguised as a romantic melodrama and shot like a family-friendly fantasy film. Remnants of director Alexandre Aja’s horror-movie past appear in startling flashes, like the sight of a child’s pale, lifeless body on a metal slab under sickly florescent light. These would be less jarring were the rest of the film not shot in a warm, golden light that gives the back of everyone’s head an angelic glow. Particularly in scenes with his psychiatrist, young star Aiden Longworth delivers dialogue laced with a precocious cynicism that’s completely missing from the cloying whimsy of his frequent voice-over narration. In other words, this movie can’t decide how it wants to look or what it wants to say. You could even call the jumble of styles and tones “quirky,” were you so inclined.

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Speaking of, the movie opens on a whimsical note, with Longworth narrating an insufferably precious montage of the many ways his character, Louis Drax, has cheated death in his nine years of existence. Most recently, young Louis came very close to the brink—in fact, he was clinically dead for more than two hours—after falling off of a cliff while on a family picnic. Or was he pushed? That’s what brilliant (of course), driven (of course), radical (of course) Dr. Alan Pascal (Jamie Dornan) becomes obsessed with finding out after Louis comes into his care. In the process he also becomes obsessed with Louis’ mother Natalie (Sarah Gadon), a tearful, moist-lipped little thing onto which Pascal can project all sorts of emotions. Natalie, as she tells Pascal, has a terrible history of being victimized by men—most recently, Louis’ father, a retired boxer named Peter (Aaron Paul).

Aside from the whole “savior doctor” thing, though, none of this is what it appears to be on the surface. Watching the puzzle box open does offer a certain narrative pleasure, although after the identity of the inky-black sea monster that’s been stalking the hallways of the hospital where Louis lies comatose has been revealed, it doesn’t require too many mental leaps to figure out the rest—including the dramatic third-act twist. (If you don’t get it until later, don’t worry. All will be explained in another voice-over at the end.) Without giving too much away, said twist has a curious message about female beauty, which actually kind of makes sense considering how blatantly Hitchcockian it is.

Is there anything inherently wrong with blending genres, or shifting tones, or a slow-burn mystery where everything you thought you knew is turned on its head by the end of the film? Of course not. It’s just that, without a strong guiding hand to contain all these elements, you get a mushy hodgepodge instead of a bold, genre-defying statement. Dornan, expressionless as always, doesn’t exactly draw the viewer in either, particularly in his scenes with Gadon (who, to be fair, is playing a cipher, so she doesn’t have a whole lot to work with). Paul is as good as always in his scenes, although he doesn’t have enough of them. Everyone has a sort of listless affect, like they don’t really want to be there and are doing the movie as a favor for a friend. By the time we get to the slowest hypnotism scene this side of The Exorcist II, audiences might be inclined to agree.

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