Appreciate the little things in life that make you feel alive. Feel the coarse sand between your toes and the wind sweeping through your hair. Feel the fleeting moments that we may take for granted for without them, we would feel absent from the world.
In his feature debut, Nine Days, director and writer Edson Oda builds a cinematic world that quietly and profoundly emphasizes the importance of those moments. He sets up the concept of the before life: a surprisingly ordinary and isolated plane of existence where souls are tested and assessed before embodying a physical being on Earth.
Will (Winston Duke) is an arbiter of souls, acting as both judge and jury. He’s a former living soul who monitors his selections on multiple analog television sets, like a modern day stockbroker tracking the market. Each TV contains a live feed from the perspective of his chosen souls. When one of these souls unexpectedly dies, Will is tasked with finding their replacement.
A series of unique souls arrive at Will’s doorstep ready to undergo situational testing, which will assess their suitability to live. The souls then have nine days to prove to Will that they should be chosen. If Will deems them not to be the right fit, he offers them the opportunity to experience one moment of living. Will and his assistant Kyo (Benedict Wong) build sets to give the rejected souls their chosen moment before they are vanquished into the unknown.
Nine Days is rooted in a tragic moment from own Oda’s past. When he was 12 years old, his uncle committed suicide, which understandably left an indelible imprint on the director. In the context of his loss, the film’s premise that our mere existence is a statistical anomaly takes on greater significance. It’s a random lottery and we won.
Nine Days sounds like it should be ethereal, which it is, but not because of the set designs or costuming. Those aspects of the film are grounded in reality with Will, Kyo, and the souls in plain, contemporary dress and styling. Will’s house is lived in and full of the kind of technology those of Oda’s generation will recall from childhood. The sets that Will and Kyo build are tactile and practical, reminiscent of school plays and community theatre productions.
The otherworldly elements of Nine Days exist in the ambiguity of the film. We don’t truly know Will’s story, although we’re given bits and pieces. We don’t know where the souls come from or where they go when they aren’t chosen. We also don’t know what happens after they are chosen. It’s in these gaps that our imaginations can fill in the blanks and be as innovative or banal as we wish.
Not only does Oda write a script so beautiful it demands to be read separately and build a world so perfectly it expertly contrasts the science-fiction nature of Nine Days, he also draws great performances from his actors. Winston Duke is exceptional, bringing coldness, warmth, darkness, and light to Will. Benedict Wong is endearing and lovable as Will’s friend and confidant, and Zazie Beetz and Bill Skarsgård are tremendous as two competing souls. Beetz brings cool, hippie vibes to her curious soul and gives a fresh performance with a great deal of heart. Skarsgård’s soul is her antithesis: calculating and pragmatic. His calm and confident demeanour works well with Beetz and their minimal scenes together shows a magnetic and natural chemistry.
Nine Days is a stunning film. A unique, intelligent, and artistic piece of work that will put studios and film lovers on high alert for Oda’s future projects. The simplicity and confidence in his work is evident from the first frame, and he exerts impressive command over the themes and characters throughout.
While not created with the COVID-19 pandemic in mind, Nine Days perfectly encompasses what many of us have felt over the past year and a half. Having been without our normal “moments”, we’ve been made more aware of our frivolities and what does and doesn’t constructively add to our lives. As we move forward into a new world shaped by the pandemic, let Nine Days be a reminder to appreciate the improbability of our existence and how lucky we are to have a place in this world.