I first saw the trailer for “Nine Days” early in 2021 and it immediately captured my attention. The directorial debut of Edson Oda (who also wrote the film) premiered at Sundance in January of 2020, just before the pandemic hit and shut theaters down for months. Released into select theaters at the end of July 2021 I finally got a chance to see this indie offering for myself and I must say that was not the experience I expected, but it’s one I’m glad I got. “Nine Days” stars Winston Duke as Will, an arbiter who judges souls before they are allowed into the land of the living through a nine-day test period. He is assisted by a former failed soul named Kyo, played by Benedict Wong, in assessing the latest candidates for a single opening. Those candidates are played by Zazie Beetz, Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, David Rysdahl, and Arianna Ortiz. As the story progresses it becomes a bold examination of existentialism and purpose while questioning what is more valuable, a positive outlook but a vulnerability to the world around you or a tough resolve but a compromised sense of peace and tact? There’s a sensitivity and careful craft to this film that genuinely challenged me as a viewer making it safely one of the most thought-provoking cinema experiences I’ve had all year.
“Nine Days” is a spectacular debut by Oda who clearly had a vision and brings that to fully realized life on screen through careful crafting of not only the world and its rules, but also its characters. Things start tragically as Winston Duke’s Will, who views the lives of his previous candidates on TV screens seeing what they see, watches as one of his favorite subjects Amanda dies unexpectedly. It’s left slightly ambiguous, even as clues add up over time, whether or not Amanda committed suicide or perished in an unfortunate accident. The question becomes Will’s obsession as he is tasked with picking from five souls to determine a successor. Each soul has a different personality, making them seem almost human already with an understanding of certain ideas and concepts but still learning about different parts of reality. None of them have ever truly lived, yet they all seem to have basic structures to who they are which serves to give Will an understanding of the kind of person they will be in the real world. As the nine days progresses Will cuts down the pool but as candidates are eliminated he does something unique…he goes out of his way to help them replicate a memory they experienced through the eyes of one of Will’s living souls. All of this opens doors to exploring so many different ideas and themes and yet Oda’s film feels well controlled and focused, never allowing any one idea to contradict or conflict with another either for time or conceptually.
An interesting touch is that Will is a former human. He’s lived in the real world and his job as an arbiter was given to him after he died. We get some background into who he was as a living person usually revealed in conversations with his most eccentric new candidate Emma, played by Zazie Beetz. These two are the heart and soul of this film with Will serving as a cynical judge of character and Emma being a carefree soul who may or may not be the best pick to enter our reality depending on your views on what strengths provide a person the best chance of surviving…but survival isn’t the name of the game is it? Will’s struggles with picking a candidate amount to one very important question: is it better to live a happy life and be vulnerable to the world or is it better to be strong enough to survive the struggles that await but be unable to see the beauty that lies behind the horror? This question is made even more difficult for him, and the audience, to answer thanks to the ambiguity of Amanda’s death. Will, who has watched her every move, struggles with the fact that he missed something and despite her being a prodigy the possibility that she ended her own life is very real. So, it begs to question…if you were an arbiter who would you pick? How would you judge people? No easy answers are given as Will, who still clearly possesses his human emotions and the memories of his own failures despite having passed on, is at odds with how he should proceed. It’s a complex examination of what makes life truly valuable and what makes a person worthy of that gift. Enjoying the simple moments is nice but being willing to stand up for yourself is also of value, but when that willingness to turn to violence overpowers who you are then are your worthy of the little moments? How do you even answer that question let alone judge what constitutes as “meaning” in life? The film never truly answers the enigma but instead provides possibilities for viewers to consider the question for themselves.
One powerful theme this film touches on that I think is being downplayed a bit by other critics and I did not expect to be such a big part of the story is suicide. As previously mentioned, the story is driven by Will’s search for answers about what happened to his beloved soul Amanda. He searches endlessly for an answer and while it appears we get a definitive truth it’s never outright stated. Like a lot of things with this movie we, the audience, are left with just as many questions as the characters. The sad beauty of leaving this truth ambiguous is what it does to Will who understands human grief in a way his candidates have yet to experience. His sees losing Amanda as a failure, not just for picking a soul that couldn’t handle the emotional stress of life but also for failing to see the signs himself even though he couldn’t do anything to intervene. The effects of suicide as a hidden demon for the sufferer and those who care about them are handled tactfully and cast a fitting shadow over the rest of the movie, influencing Will’s decision making and clouding his values for who is worthy of entering the real world. His hatred for what the world does to people conflicts with the value of what people bring to the world. While it’s never explicitly stated, it is possible that Amanda’s fate could have a direct connection to Will’s. We never find out how he died but only that he considers his life one filled with missed opportunities. Leaving that ambiguous as well adds to the effect as, like with people suffering from any mental illness, we never know what leads someone down a path so the compassion and understanding has to come from the information we’re given not what we don’t know.
So many powerful ideas all crammed into a two-hour experience, and I haven’t even touched on the style and execution of the film yet. The visuals and settings are wonderful yet simple. We are never given every rule that governs this reality such as how five people can go through the same test of watching cameras all day all in the same room in the same day but never be in the same room at the same time which can feel like the movie glosses over things Oda himself couldn’t explain. However these questions are much less important than what these characters get from the experiences. It’s easy to overlook these rather simple flaws just because the world we’re presented is full of questions and possibilities not meant to be understood anyway. The performances impressively engaging too with Winston Duke as a solid central figure and each of the five personalities showcasing very distinct values, flaws and perspectives. Zazie Beetz is the clear highlight of the candidates as not only a standout soul but also providing one of the most layered performances of all the candidates, but everyone does a fine job with their characters with Bill Skarsgård and Benedict Wong as solid main supporting players. Finally, I was surprised by the tone of this movie after going in expecting some inspirational and bright examination of the meaning of life. Instead “Nine Days” mostly avoids manipulation. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that tackles its questions in the exact opposite way I expected providing something more bittersweet and challenging. It was a pleasant surprise as it resonated with me in ways I wasn’t prepared for to the point where I found myself pondering over it all well into the night after returning home.
“Nine Days” is a fascinating film to say the least. While it doesn’t stray away from a lot of conventions that usually drag these kinds of movies down into the mushy, sentimental hole of positivity that compromises substance, like Pixar’s ‘Soul” before it “Nine Days” presents a controlled and confident execution that overpowers all that familiarity to give viewers an emotionally draining ride that takes few easy ways out in exploring what it truly means to live. Grade-A performance work from all involved and Edson Oda’s committed direction and writing provide us with a world of questions and only a few direct answers while never making the film feel too enigmatic or pretentious. It’s simply a complicated journey into some of the most difficult questions and realities the world has ever offered, some of which really have no correct answer at all. Challenging, evocative and daring in its approach to numerous intertwined but different themes about our existence and what it means to live, “Nine Days” delivers in all the best ways giving viewers something clever, powerful and heartfelt to cling to as we ponder its many questions and possibilities for ourselves.