Film Review – Nine Days (Second Take)
Think back to how many films depict the afterlife or pre-life. Every screenwriter or filmmaker has an idea of what it would be like, whether guided by religion or not. These films bubble over with creativity and some original ideas; some rely on special effects and CGI, while others are more grounded and less showy in terms of the surrounding elements of the story. Nine Days fits into the latter category, with screenwriter and director Edson Oda focusing on the actors’ performances to build a fulfilling and intriguing story of what happens before we are born into this world.
Nine Days focuses on the character of Will (Winston Duke), who is an administrator of sorts for the souls that have a chance at life on Earth. Will is quiet and serious yet has a commanding presence. He takes his job seriously, more so than his quasi-counterpart Kyo (Benedict Wong). Will lives in an unassuming farmhouse in a desolate, sandy land dotted with some large, rocky outcroppings in the distance. Several (maybe a dozen) tube TVs stacked haphazardly on top of each other populate his living room. Each TV shows us a life on Earth, one that Will decided was worthy of being born. At different times, he records moments with a VCR that is at the ready. Will’s life in this place is thrown into chaos when one of his souls, Amanda (Lisa Starrett), appears to have committed suicide. While Will is coping with this loss, the death of one of his souls on Earth begins the process of choosing a new soul for the vacancy left by Amanda. This process takes nine days, starts with several souls, and is whittled down to one on the ninth day.
First and foremost, this film relies heavily on the performances of its actors, and all of them excel at portraying their respective characters. While most audiences may be more familiar with Winston Duke from Us and Black Panther, Nine Days gives this actor a vast space to demonstrate his dramatic acting, and he is up for the task and fills that space entirely. Duke, against all of the other actors he shares the screen with, commands a presence due to his height and his remarkable portrayal of Will. Will is a complicated person, both because of his “job” and that he did live and die on Earth before coming to this place. When interacting with new souls, he is both quiet and patient yet profound and leans into his own experience with acting on Earth to demonstrate a predicament that demands a choice from the new souls. Will is a multi-layered being who shows empathy and kindness to the new souls that don’t make the cut, something that Kyo points out is not done by others with Will’s same task. Winston Duke is able to make every scene deliberate in its softness and intentional in the conflicting emotions that arise through different scenes.
Juxtaposing with Will’s personality is the new soul, Emma (Zazie Beetz), who is as inquisitive as they come. She does the opposite of what Will would expect her to do; she doesn’t make sense to him. She has a certain aloofness to her observations, and this comes off to Will as being not serious about her assignments. Beetz perfectly encompasses Emma with the way she takes in her surroundings with wide-eyed curiosity and challenges Will.
The tragedy of Amanda and processing what happened to her affects Will’s choice for the next soul to send to Earth. Kyo is a voice of sanity and reason, pointing out Emma’s uniqueness, but Will disagrees with his assessment. Another new soul, Cane (Bill Skarsgård), grabs Will’s attention with his blunt answers to questions and uncertain morality. Cane is tough, the opposite of Emma.
Nine Days is a multi-layered story that can be deconstructed and examined from the different viewpoints of the characters in this fictional pre-life world. A short review of it cannot touch the depths of all its meanings. This film is meant for an English, film, or drama school class to pick apart, much like I did with novels and short stories in college. Along with Will and Kyo, each new soul brings light and some moments of darkness to the desolate landscape and the small farmhouse. The film is rife with dramatic acting excellence, so much so that I wondered how the film could play out on a stage in the middle of viewing it. Edson Oda’s script is enough to build Will’s world, hence the lo-fi route on the production design and special effects. With the addition of these exceptional actors to embody these characters, Nine Days is truly one of the best films of the year, with Winston Duke giving all his talent to his role of Will in a final scene that takes your breath away. Nine Days is a quiet story filled with meanings and elusive happiness that can be found.