It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
“The 9th Life of Louis Drax” is a twisty, Hitchcockian thriller mixed with trippy moments of magical realism. And if that doesn’t sound on paper like it would work, well, it does. And it doesn’t.
French horror director Alexandre Aja (“High Tension,” “The Hills Have Eyes”) tries to juggle a jumble of images and tonal shifts here as he did in his 2014 film “Horns,” which starred Daniel Radcliffe as a young man suspected of murder who literally sprouts horns from his forehead as he accepts his new, devilish role. Radcliffe’s co-star in that movie, Max Minghella, wrote the script for “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” based on the novel by Liz Jensen. Maybe some of the more fantastical ideas worked better in the book; seeing them brought to life on screen, it’s hard not to admire their ambition, even if they don’t always coalesce into a cohesive, satisfying film.
“The 9th Life of Louis Drax” relies heavily, at least in the introductory scene setting, on voiceover from Aiden Longworth as the title character. The smart, strange child describes himself in sardonically perky fashion as “the amazing, accident-prone kid” as we witness his litany of near-death experiences. A chandelier fell on him in his crib when he was an infant. There was an unfortunate incident involving a fork and an electrical socket. But the worst of all—the one that may finally do him in—occurred on his ninth birthday as he was enjoying a picnic with his mother, Natalie (Sarah Gadon), and father, Peter (Aaron Paul).
“Enjoying” isn’t exactly the right word, though, because as we learn from increasingly informative flashbacks, Natalie and Peter are in the midst of a tense separation. “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” tries to keep us on our toes through multiple perspectives and unreliable narrators, constantly challenging us to determine what’s real and what’s imagined. One thing that is for sure: Louis went over a steep cliff that day and is now lying in a coma. The setting—the craggy hills of Marin County, overlooking an eerily cloud-enshrouded San Francisco—is one of many elements that call to mind Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Another is the intriguingly icy presence of Gadon, a blonde femme fatale clad in classic party dresses and capri pants. While Natalie manages to convince everyone around her that she’s a damsel in distress, there’s clearly much more going on beneath her pristine surface.