Film Review – Nine Days
What does it mean to be alive? What does to mean to have a soul? Is there more beyond the time of being born and passing away? These are just a few of the questions that permeate writer/director Edson Oda’s impressive feature length debut, Nine Days (2021). Incorporating an ethereal, poetic tone, Oda guides us through a tale that is both intimate and universal. His focus is on the very elements that make us human: compassion, empathy, and understanding. His film is about life itself – about the ups and downs and the quiet moments in between.
Like the best of Terrence Malick, Oda’s strongest asset is how he views the world as a collection of moments. Few filmmakers have the ability to let their camera capture life in all its simplicity, beauty, and ugliness. Birthday parties, walks on the beach, playing in a field, fighting bullies, eating dinner, bicycle rides, car crashes, musical performances – they all play a part in the total experience of a person’s very being. They are the memories that make us individuals, and Oda uses them as the foundation for his narrative.
Oda constructs the idea of memories as VHS tapes playing on multiple TV screens. Each TV set shows the perspective of one individual living their life. The person watching over these monitors is our protagonist, Will (Winston Duke). Will is an otherworldly being, presented to us as a human man but clearly operating as something more than that. Will’s primary job is to choose souls to be born as living people. With the help of his friend and assistant Kyo (Benedict Wong), Will goes through a lengthy interview process. The vetting lasts nine days, during which he presents hypothetical questions to the applicants. How they answer helps him decide who moves on to the next stage and who doesn’t.
How did Will come to have this job? What right does he have to judge who can be given life and who can’t? These specifics are vaguely answered (if at all), and perhaps the film is better for it. Oda is not so much interested in the details of the story, but in the emotional stakes that are put on Will’s shoulders given his position. Will is efficient at what he does, but that does not mean he doesn’t become attached to the applicants. The people he watches on TV are those he approved – he displays an investment to see where life takes them. He is particularly attached to Amanda (Lisa Starrett), who has become an accomplished violinist. Amanda acts as a metaphor for each soul Will has ever interviewed. We get a sense that he constantly questions whether he made the right decision with each of them. Maybe he feels responsible for the fate of those he chooses.
That inner crisis is amplified with the latest batch of applicants. Each individual plays by the rules while questioning why the rules even exist. Kane (Bill Skarsgård) – whose name is a reference to the biblical Cain and Abel – sees the evil of the world and wonders if fighting hate with hate is the appropriate response. Alexander (Tony Hale) tries to adhere to Will’s humane side, treating him like a friend he could share a drink with. Anne (Perry Smith) wonders whether she gave the right answer to Will’s questions, or if she said something wrong. The most intriguing candidate is Emma (Zazie Beetz), a soul who appears indifferent to the entire process. Emma shows genuine curiosity toward the others and of Will himself. Emma wonders about him – if he has a past that has led him to be who he is now.
Nine Days is striking in its imagery. The set design and art direction (along with Wyatt Garfield’s cinematography) places Will’s home in the middle of a barren desert, as though it were a rest stop between two dimensions. Souls come and go like weary travelers, appearing out of nowhere and then vanishing without a trace. Antonio Pinto’s music has a haunting quality – beautiful in its melody but thick with emotion and tenderness. All these pieces are organized by Oda’s steady hand. His patience and cinematic touch doesn’t allow the material to fall into cheap sentimentality. At points his direction elevates to brilliance, such as when Will recreates life events for failed applicants (or as he describes it, “One Perfect Moment”). Utilizing projection screens and sounds effects, Will’s recreations work on two levels. They show how simple daily activities can be moments of pure joy, and they reveal how much generosity Will has for each soul – whether chosen or not.
This is a star making performance by Winston Duke, whom I remember as the father in Jordan Peele’s Us (2019). Here, Duke is given full opportunity to display Will’s differing emotional states. He often plays the character through his eyes, letting us know his thoughts with the slightest facial expression or the smallest piece of dialogue. Will can explode in a fit of anger or frustration, but it’s when he bottles everything inside that makes him so intriguing. With each passing interview, Will’s barriers start to crumble. He carries every soul he has ever turned down or approved, and that burden has weighed heavily for him. Duke has the same skill of performance as Robert De Niro, Bill Murray, or Tony Leung, – where he can convey so much while seemingly doing so little.
Nine Days does not offer easy answers, and rightfully so. The meaning of life is a mystery that has lasted as long as time itself – to provide concrete solutions would be a betrayal. The success of Oda’s film is that it has the intelligence and vision to ask the big questions – to ponder why we’re here in hopes of making our time more meaningful.