In “Nine Days”, writer and director Edson Oda ponders the meaning of life. Sounds pretentious, right? But although several scenes feel like they are deliberately engineered to extract an emotional response from the audience, from its unique world-building to its heartfelt performances, “Nine Days” holds up a mirror to all of life’s highs and lows in a way that never loses sight of finding the beauty in every moment.
Winston Duke leads the cast as Will, an arbiter who interviews souls on their way to inhabit living bodies. Will also spends his days in a home watching a wall of television screens that allow him to see through the eyes of the previous souls he has chosen. It sounds like a rather futuristic enterprise, but part of the charm of “Nine Days” is how surprisingly low-tech everything is. Will’s wall of screens is a bunch of old TV sets stacked on top of each other, and he records important moments in each person’s life on VHS tapes, taking notes on their progress in a notebook. Out of all the lives he watches over, Will seems to be particularly attached to Amanda, a young woman who’s a concert pianist. Amanda’s sudden death both opens up the vacancy for new life that Will spends the rest of the movie interviewing candidates for, and also shakes him to his core.
Despite not technically being alive, the souls Will interviews for the position over the course of nine days all have distinct personalities and feelings, even if they don’t fully comprehend the meaning behind those feelings. They include the pessimistic Kane (Bill Skarsgård), laid-back Alex (Tony Hale), romantic Maria (Arianna Ortiz), quiet and artistic Mike David Rysdahl), and empathetic and curious Emma (Zazie Beetz). It’s heavily implied that Will, who was alive before he became an interviewer, underwent a series of upsetting experiences in life that prompted him to adopt the restrained exterior he currently exhibits, while in his candidates he appears mostly interested in only promoting those who prove that they will be tough enough to handle whatever life throws at them. It’s Emma, who spends her nine days frequently questioning Will’s actions and worldview, who prompts him to reconsider his perspective.
Oda tackles a lot of heavy subjects in his directorial debut, chief among them being depression and grief. Will is completely puzzled at Amanda’s sudden death, because outwardly she seemed fine; he never saw any warning signs. But while his TV screens allow him to see through his selections’ eyes, they don’t give him the ability to see inside their heads, and Will is left to grapple with the fact that Amanda was not as happy with her life as she appeared to be. The tests that Will administers to his subjects are also frequently centers around cruelty and violence. He often lets them observe his televisions so they can pick out things they see in life that they like, but his primary focus is on how they would handle the tough situations.
But Oda’s film ultimately celebrates life in ways both joyous and melancholy. Will’s companion is Kyo (Benedict Wong), a soul who never disappeared after he wasn’t promoted to life and who sometimes assists Will with his interviews. Together, they watch the wedding of one of Will’s candidates; “She looks happy,” Kyo tells Will, by way of congratulating him on a job well done, even if Will is still to preoccupied with his supposed failures to feel the same way. And when Will denies a soul the opportunity for life, he lets them pick one moment they’d like to experience before they disappear forever, and does his best to recreate it for them.
The creation of these special moments are some of the most visually and emotionally gorgeous scenes in “Nine Days.” Will lives in a small home in the middle of the desert, surrounded by nothing but a vast landscape of sand and distant hills. But using whatever he has on hand (often a screen, a projector, some headphones, and a few practical effects), he is able to craft experiences for those souls from nothing, experiences that many of us likely take for granted. One of them wants to walk on the beach, to feel the sand between his toes and the waves lapping at his feet. Another wants to take a bike ride. Another just wants to sit and have a beer with good company. These scenes are obviously melancholy- this is the closest to experiencing life these souls are going to get- but they also prompt us to rethink what moments we consider to be important.
Oda directs his film with a confident hand, and gets great performances from his cast. I cannot state enough how thrilling it was to see Winston Duke in a lead role like this. His character is frequently restrained, occasionally cold (especially compared to Wong, who crafts a more outwardly affectionate character that’s a great foil to Will), but it’s always apparent that there is something else going on behind his eyes, a reason for that coldness. And the times when he does explode with emotion are devastating. Beetz is also a delight. Her character appears interested in life, but no so much in Will’s interview process. She’s more interested, in fact, in Will, and what life did to him to make him this way. Her directness and curiosity is always likable and never irritating. And talk about appreciating life’s small moments: Emma is the sort of soul who sees all of them.
Oda’s auspicious first feature consistently challenges its audience to find the meaning in our lives. It may do so a little obviously, but it’s engrossing and moving all the same. “Nine Days” played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down, delaying the film’s theatrical release. But I’m kind of glad we have this movie now, as opposed to when everything felt much bleaker and scarier (not that it doesn’t anymore, but that’s another story). Getting to watch a movie about not taking things for granted after a year that saw many people shifting their priorities and making changing to their lives at this moment in time just feels right.
“Nine Days” is now playing in select theaters. Runtime: 124 minutes. Rated R.