Nine Days is kind of like Pixar’s Soul with a Sundance vibe, which is fitting since it premiered at Sundance in 2020. It’s just now being released though and this blend of fantasy and fate was well worth the wait.
Written and directed by Edson Oda, Nine Days is about the place people go before they’re born. A place where you learn about what it means to be alive and, if selected, get to experience it yourself—and the people choosing have issues of their own. It’s a simple, profound piece of world-building that sets the stage for not just a compelling story, but larger discussions outside the theater about free will, the nature of existence, and the meaning of life.
The film stars Winston Duke (Black Panther) as Will, a being that was, at some point, alive. Now, for reasons that are never explained, he is one of many (we think) beings whose job it is to passively oversee a set number of lives. When one of those lives ends, he must choose a new soul to be born into the world. This process takes nine days and in that time he meets with several viable candidates, all of whom are put through tests to see what kind of person they would be: How would they react in stressful situations? What are their feelings on the good, the bad, and all life has to offer? Every few days during the process Will takes what he’s learned about the people and, based on his own personal preferences, whittles the number down. That continues until, finally, he selects a soul he feels worthy of being given life; he then tracks the people he selected, continually adapting his worldview so he can make the next decision when another slot is open.
Among the actors playing Will’s candidates in the film are Bill Skarsgård (It), Tony Hale (Arrested Development), and Arianna Ortiz (This Is Us). He’s also assisted by Kyo (Doctor Strange’s Benedict Wong) who doesn’t have any final say in the process, but somehow exists along with Will in this mysterious place to offer guidance and opinions. Each of Will’s choices are good people but, of course, they’re all varied; some are more forward, others are more reserved, have different interests, etc. Then there’s Emma, played by Deadpool 2's Zazie Beetz. Emma is more curious than the other candidates. She challenges Will in ways he’s not used to and, over the course of the film, makes him question his existence as much as he’s making a decision about everyone else’s.
At this point you might be wondering, where is this place? What is Will? Are these people even people? Are they souls? Where do they go if they aren’t chosen? Whether or not any of that is explicitly answered in the film, I won’t say, but none of it is the point of the movie. Much like life itself, most things in Nine Days are kept mysterious and the characters—in addition to the viewer—is forced to concentrate on the story at hand. We question why Will is choosing who he’s choosing. What gets one person eliminated right away and another days later? Much of that is informed by the way the story slowly reveals more about his former experiences when he was alive. The more we learn about his life, the more we learn what he thinks is precious about humanity and how that influences his job.
As for this world itself, it’s ethereal in its nature but not in its presentation. As with the rest of the film, things are minimal yet mesmerizing. Everything looks and feels familiar. It’s quiet. The colors are muted. All the technology Will uses is retro. The comforting, deliberate design choices take the spotlight away from this fascinating, mysterious world, and instead shine it on the characters and discussions within it. And shine they do. Everyone in Nine Days is flat-out fantastic. Skarsgård plays Kane, a character who is tough and gritty but also heartfelt and kind. Wong’s Kyo is curious and playful, but also mindful and sympathetic. Hale is Alexander, a character who ends up being simultaneously funny and sad. And then of course there’s Beetz and Duke.
Beetz’s performance as the strong-willed, love-filled Emma is wholly engaging and a perfect fit for this story. She’s unafraid of asking tough questions and with her confident demeanor, it’s easy to fall in love with the character. It also helps that she’s usually interacting with Will, who is almost the complete opposite. As Will, Duke is a vault of emotions. You know he’s filled with them, but they’re locked inside, almost vibrating to burst out of his stoic exterior. It makes for an unforgettable performance that, when juxtaposed with Beetz’s, creates an almost symbiotic chemistry where each character gives the best of themselves to each other. It’s electric, unpredictable, and ultimately gives Oda the vessel to convey the film’s messages.
Beyond the performances, Nine Days sustains our interest both with its world-building and the central question of “Who is going to win?” It’s almost like a low-key Hunger Games as participants are eliminated, which is played as both sad, but also beautiful. Will is incredibly kind throughout the process and even when he eliminates someone, he lets them enjoy something special. As a result, the film shows us that even with just a few days to exist, these beings appreciate every little bit of life they’re able to discover. In turn, Nine Days makes one think about all the things in our own lives we take for granted.
Though Oda’s script has that overarching story at its center, each scene unfolds like a mini-stage play with Will and each of the characters discussing fascinating scenarios and events. Different people interpret different actions in different ways and the film forces us to answer the questions Will is asking of them ourselves. How would we handle a life or death situation presented to us? Each of Will’s scenarios tests the viewer too and the film makes us reflect them on our own lives. Would we have been chosen by Will? That deeper connection beyond the film itself gives Nine Days a resonance that will stay with you long after it cuts to black and the credits roll. It’s a powerful, fascinating, thought-provoking film with mystery and heart to spare.
Nine Days is open now in select theaters. It’ll continue to expand to additional cities over the coming weeks. Visit the official site for more details.
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