Nine Days, 2021.
Written and Directed by Edson Oda.
Starring Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Bill Skarsgård, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale, David Rysdahl, Geraldine Hughes, Arianna Ortiz, Perry Smith, Lisa Starrett, and John Forker.
A reclusive man conducts a series of interviews with human souls for a chance to be born.
Will (Winston Duke delivering one of the most deeply moving performances of the year so far) watches over the land of the living in Nine Days, jotting down notes on whatever happens to those individuals. It might sound like he is an omnipotent deity, but it’s actually said best by another character that he is more of a cog in a machine. That machine is precisely a remarkably unique system that sees Will as one of many judges of life, conducting a nine-day interview session following the tragic death of one of his favorite humans to live vicariously through.
That would be violinist virtuoso Amanda (Lisa Starrett), who, with no signs of depression or suicidal tendencies, decides to speed up, crash her car, and kill herself. Naturally, this jolts Will, who believes that there has to be another explanation besides what’s evident to us the first time we see it, let alone the number of times Will rewinds the VHS tape to analyze the event. Nevertheless, there is also a vacancy among the humans he observes, springing forth the aforementioned interview process, which turns out to feature souls vying for an opportunity at human life.
Written and directed by Japanese Brazilian filmmaker Edson Oda (also his feature-length narrative debut, a mesmerizing singular transfixing vision that should justifiably garner all sorts of awards attention and open more doors to realizing future projects) is straightforward with the premise, there are a few character reveals that won’t be spoiled. However, for the most part, Nine Days is not a supernatural mystery, so those seeking something heady need not apply. If you are on board with the idea of the likes of Zazie Beetz, Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgard, and others playing somewhat emotionless versions of themselves learning about life and deciding who they want to be and what kind of lifestyle they want to live, to determine what soul goes on to inhabit a human body, that’s enough to come out blown away by what’s here.
Aesthetically, the film is also striking, placing Will in a secluded house in the middle of a desert. The isolation is captured with vast landscape shots, with Will’s only social interaction coming from Benedict Wong’s co-worker Kyo (who is there to observe Will doing his job), who occasionally watches footage of human minds and assists with the selective process forth new life. Small creative choices such as going with a combination of technological devices at the outpost ranging from VHS tapes to projectors give the film a sense of methodical craftsmanship down to every little detail. The same goes for the costume design, which has Will in a more old-fashioned wardrobe.
Nine Days uses this elaborate production design for a series of interviews that start intense (and almost hostile) with Will posing extreme circumstance scenarios such as the ability to take the life of a loved one to save other lives. It shouldn’t surprise that all interviewees generally have different reactions and responses; some are more optimistic, some don’t see the point of such terrorizing questions because they want to live a relaxing life, and some suggest something more violent. In the case of Emma (Zazie Beetz), she refuses to play along with the hypotheticals while demanding more context. Simultaneously, they are told to check out the lives of others to get a further idea of what the meaning of life would be to them. Every day, a member of the group is rejected, but not before having a memory they did enjoy from observing life to be re-created as realistic as possible (making use of holographic screens) before vanishing into nothingness. As you can imagine, some of these sequences are among the most tear-jerking (lots of tears flow in this one), also in part due to the incredible ensemble in top form.
It’s all imaginatively clever to peel away everything from what’s essential to a person, the different ways people can see the world, and how that all connects to someone choosing life. Keep in mind, Will is going through an emotional crisis not only from his pride and joy committing suicide but his entire process facing head-on confrontation from his beliefs and Emma. With that said, every major player gets at least one memorable scene, whether it be Tony Hale getting heated and making a fair point about Will’s mental state and qualifications or Bill Skarsgard recounting a disturbing event he saw browsing other lives. There’s also delicate addressing of the suicide itself and how even with keeping tabs on an individual to this extent, it’s still possible to miss signs of depression or suicidal thoughts.
Where Nine Days goes from this is beautifully life-affirming and wouldn’t work without Winston Duke taking on all of Will’s complexities. It’s a showstopping performance filled with everything from sorrow to regret to nuclear energy to celebratory joy. All of it is heightened by a powerfully sweeping score from Antonio Pinto that is in step with the themes and story every bit of the way. Nine Days more than an outstanding debut; it’s a miraculous and flooring work of art tackling the intricacies of life itself and purpose.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com