Nine-year-old Louis Drax has a bad habit of dying. Electrocution, spider bites, drowning. One or two spills like that, and you figure he must have one heck of a guardian angel, but when a kid suffers eight such accidents within the span of so many years, it starts to raise questions about his parents — which is exactly what happens when poor Louis takes a tumble off a tall cliff and into a coma in “The 9th Life of Louis Drax.” The least sinister of gore auteur Alexandre Aja’s films by far (joining a résumé filled with bloodbaths like “High Tension” and “Piranha 3D”), this film noir-esque adaptation of Liz Jensen’s page-turner barely musters enough heat to qualify as a potboiler, though Jamie Dornan and Aaron Paul’s involvement should give the overly predictable Summit Premiere release a second life on VOD following a short stint in theaters.
No stranger to emergency rooms, Louis (whose name rhymes with Huey and Dewey, and who is played here by Aiden Longworth) has adopted a wry sense of humor regarding his penchant for nearly dying. You can hear it in his irreverent narration — “Together we’ll solve the mystery of the amazing accident-prone boy,” he tells us — and you can sense it in the semi-combative tone he takes with child psychologist Dr. Michael Perez (Oliver Platt), whose primary job is to provide exposition and encourage red herrings.
Meanwhile, looking as suspicious as possible, Aaron Paul plays Louis’ shifty stepdad, Peter Drax, whom everyone assumes must have given the kid a push before skipping town himself — conveniently making room for Dornan, as a celebrated coma expert named Dr. Allan Pascal (rechristened from the book’s co-narrator, Pascal Dannachet, whose more rational analysis goes unvoiced here). Still, Dr. Pascal takes a keen interest in Louis’ case, and an even keener interest in his mother Natalie (Sarah Gadon).
Though he would likely be laughed out of any real-world hospital, Pascal believes in supernatural phenomena, having experienced something eerie in his own childhood — and sure enough, there is something that modern science can’t explain lurking around his vegetable garden (a sludge-tracking swamp thing who may or may not be confined to Louis’ imagination), which invites the possibility that the explanation for Louis’ many mishaps could be supernatural. Alas, the ultimate verdict is nearly as mundane as they come, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, if Max Minghella’s script had given the guilty party the sort of berserk over-reaction that can etch such otherwise forgettable thrillers into our memories forever.
Instead, the thing that sets Louis Drax’s story apart is Louis Drax himself: It’s as if the kid is ready to die. He’s already been through the experience often enough, and now, where anyone else his age might be fighting for his life, the only reason he’s sticking around is for our entertainment. (If he weren’t in a coma, of course, he could tell us easily enough what happened to him.) Still, his unsettling acceptance of his fate suggests a completely different attitude from countless other terminal-kid stories — tearjerkers like “My Sister’s Keeper” and “The Fault in Our Stars” about young people cursed to die before their time.
Aja may as well be mocking such legitimately tragic tales, much as his recent “Horns” skewered earnest teen love stories. But that’s not to say this genre-challenging thriller is lacking in style. Shot in shadowy blues and buried in an elaborate orchestral score, the mystery feels like a Stephen King-penned spin on the classic detective noir, where Dornan is the sucker who falls for the dame, and Paul serves as the composite character who stands in his way. Adding a splash of truly eccentric color to the mix is Barbara Hershey, who plays Louis’ concerned grandmother, stirring up trouble in the coma ward, where closed-circuit cameras reveal some “Paranormal Activity”-like behavior on Dr. Pascal’s part.
For Aja, who has demonstrated an appetite for truly twisted material in the past, it all adds up to a disappointingly tame outing. After all, the stakes are low when your protagonist is as good as dead to begin with, though it takes a special kind of sadist to kill (or almost kill) a kid nine times, and in that respect, both Aja and novelist Jensen start to look nearly as twisted as whoever’s responsible in the first place. Good thing Louis has learned to laugh about his luck.