Director Edson Oda tackles what comes before life and, more importantly, what makes up a life in the serene and powerful Nine Days. While life and what comes after has certainly been explored before in film, the script, also written by Oda, instead shifts the focus to what comes before and what it means to be born into a world with so many known obstacles. Tremendously moving and confident in its resilient nature of preferring bare faced displays of emotion rather than feeling the need to philosophize, Nine Days is instead a ponderous approach to the inbetween worlds, somewhere kinder than purgatory where still souls are tested.
Will (Winston Duke) resides in an isolated house on a deserted plain, existing as an arbiter who will judge five souls – played by Zazie Beetz, Bill Skarsgård, Tony Hale, David Rysdah and Arianna Ortiz—to determine who is fit to inhabit a recently vacant position as a living breathing human. Within that process we learn more about him as well as the other souls, as over the course of nine days Will asks them some truly deep and challenging questions that will determine who will be chosen.
It’s a simple enough premise that allows for the gorgeous visuals and other technical aspects of the filmmaking to shine. The film is, quite simply, gorgeous to look at and, despite operating largely out of Will’s small cabin, the production discovered increasingly inventive ways to visually tell a story that toes the line between purely imaginative and realistic, an otherworldly atmosphere that manages to keep fully intact the entire runtime. A moment as a woman is given the chance to ride a bike through what seems to her an ever-expanding world is particularly stunning in how Oda envisions what it would take to build a miracle from scraps. This level of innovation coupled with the cinematography by Wyatt Garfield grants the space a ghostly emptiness while still highlighting the natural, sun kissed beauty of the surroundings, making it so we almost always feel as if we’ve been anchored in a dream.
The story isn’t so much about life and or death as much as a meditation on regret and second chances, the introspection that comes from getting to see yourself through the eyes of another—to be given the chance at a rebirth where past errors, embarrassment or defeat can be not so much rectified as they are reconciled—a realization that while one has their flaws, that isn’t what makes them who they are. This distinct sentiment grants a film which in other hands might’ve been direly moralistic, a shocking abundance of heart and those aforementioned big bursts of emotion. Nine Days positively yearns to make the audience member feel, and my god do we ever.
Few films in recent memory have been so greatly enhanced by their score as this one has due to the work of composer Antonio Pinto. It’s music that imbues each scene and every moment of reckoning with greater emotional stakes and understanding, especially through the emotive power of strings as they shudder into our bones. The music acts as the soulful backbone to the picture, a constantly rearranging piece of work that enriches what is already a transfixing story.
There’s a wealth of talent on display here and leading the charge is Winston Duke as the image of precise repression. As the man who guides the souls who appear to him and will be the one to decide which one is allowed the gift of life, he offers at first a relative coldness, an aloof figure compared to the newborn souls, each experiencing and learning for the first time who swing like a pendulum of emotional volatility throughout their stay. His is a perceived, fixed emotion, one he learned rather than one that came naturally to him. What allows Duke moments of true glory however are thoss when his general, gentle demeanor is cracked and all his delicate fragility is on display, the best element being that the only person he hid this aspect from was himself.
He’s surrounded by excellent performers, especially in Wong as Kyo, his aid who approves his decisions but isn’t allowed to pick due to never having been alive himself and Bill Skarsgård as unborn soul Kane, an immediate skeptic to the world he’s tasked with observing. They’re perfectly contrasting, even more so than Zazie Beetz’s Emma whose optimism and open curiosity are shown as honorable, if naive, virtues. Kyo, like Emma, has a childlike wonder to him and an endless amount of empathy, exuding warmth for life he cherishes even if he can’t quite understand it and Wong is suitably charismatic and expressive, each emotion reading clear on his face. The performances of Wong and Beetz contrasted with Skarsgård’s hesitant stoicism and the tired way in which he watches the world depicts differing ideologies of the world—either life is something that holds infinite possibilities and a fortune of small, beautiful moments—or the world is damaged beyond repair and that most who live will suffer in some way be it through grief, pain or the cosmic shift that comes with the loss of innocence.
Telling though is Oda’s commitment to allowing the former belief to persevere and argue that, even in all that suffering and loss there are still sunsets to watch, jokes to be shared and sweets to be eaten. Nine Days is an enormous undertaking for a first time director not only due to the scope that’s set for it and the surreal yet heartfelt tonality it must capture so that we care for these characters and their small triumphs, but also because these messages of finding pockets of happiness so easily could have come across as sacherinne in heavier hands. Instead, we are gifted moments of euphoria dazzling even in the barren backdrop of some displaced, nameless void of a desert. Nine Days isn’t simply suggesting we open our eyes to only the positives of life lest we miss something important, but instead asking that we keep them cast towards any possible moments of bliss and camaraderie, of things we’ve never experienced and may never experience again so cherish the moment.
Nine Days, despite the deep melancholy that takes root in your chest, believes in the power of owning our memories, that we are all defined more by the countless in-between moments and experiences than the ones we believe are the biggest and brightest. Oda has crafted a stunner; a life affirming and powerful ode to the integrity of empathy and necessity of companionship, Nine Days asks that we both seek our true selves while helping those around us to experience theirs.