“Before we get started, do you have any questions?” That is always what Will (Winston Duke) starts his participants off with. What exactly is he doing? Well, Will is the gatekeeper of sorts between those who are alive and those who wish to be. In his remote location, he is the surveyor of all the people he has ever selected and gifted life to on a myriad of television screens. He takes particular pleasure in one subject, who sadly meets an untimely end that he nor his assistant, Kyo (Benedict Wong) can make sense of.
Nevertheless, the tragedy opens a new spot for someone to join the living. Over Nine Days, Will will choose from Kane (Bill Skarsgård), someone who sees the world in all of its ills and brutality, Alexander (Tony Hale), a person who reacts to everything with some form of humor, and a handful of others. But one person stands out; not in a good way, not in a bad way, but in a peculiar way. That would be Emma (Zazie Beetz), who has the lack of fear to question everything and force those around her—including Will—to question what really matters.
The simplest comparison to Nine Days is last year’s Soul. That Disney/Pixar movie was an insightful and loose-ruled philosophical examination of what makes life worth living. So too is Nine Days, with the biggest difference being the point of view of whom we’re seeing the message through and a slight inverse of the message itself. In Soul, it was Joe, a “normie” who couldn’t see the beauty in small things if they didn’t involve what he wanted to do. In Nine Days, it is Will who once experienced “life,” had a bad experience, and now serves as a pseudo-“God” who is taking his past negative experiences and imbuing them into his decision-making process on who gets to be on Earth. One colored by expectations, the other disappointment. Subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless.
Nine Days is the full-length feature debut of writer and director Edson Oda. A few influences come to mind when watching his movie, one being The Truman Show. His lead character isn’t quite the influencing director that Ed Harris was, but Will constantly maintains a voyeuristic eye on those he has chosen to experience life. Outside of the screens, his feature doesn’t take place in many different settings—it’s pretty confined to Will’s middle-of-the-desert cabin. It is a minimalist movie that lends itself to a deep sense of immersion. The older aesthetics from the tube TVs to the rustic interior give it a vibe of yesteryear, with the cherry on top a string-based score composed by Antonio Pinto that manages to feel raw and refined.
There aren’t too many missteps in the auteur’s first debut. But if one wants to nitpick, Oda’s dialogue sometimes feels like it would be a better fit for a play format. Along with that, the lot of characters, while still interesting enough in their own right, certainly take a backseat to the story at large knowing that not all will make it to see the end (so much is said in the first 15 minutes), and so, the engagement we have with them is fairly nil. They mostly exist to further the story, and like some casts tend to me, the ones who carry more name weight are the ones who make it the longest.
Slightly skim characters notwithstanding, the talent at hand consists of names/faces that most moviegoers will know from big and kind of memed IPs at this point (IT, Black Panther, Deadpool 2), yet may not recognize them outside of the Disney and Warner Bros. umbrellas. I’m talking first about Skarsgård and Beetz, here restrained in their roles portraying essentially two sides of the same coin that are needed to survive in an oft cruel world. But it is Duke who covers the gamut of emotions that drives home the power of Nine Days, particularly as he reckons with the failures of his time on Earth and slowly re-wires his mindset after continued time spent with Emma. In what amounts to the still relatively inexperienced actor’s first leading gif, he is mind-blowing amazing in this film, and let’s hope it isn’t a performance that is forgotten come end-year accolades.
Grand in ambition, there is an eternal simplicity that positions Nine Days as a hidden gem. It is a moving and touching look at focusing on the things that make life zestful.