Will (Winston Duke, Black Panther, Us) is an administrator in an existential no-man’s land. Existing in a time and space outside of life as we know it, it is his job, along with the help of his assistant and friend Kyo (Benedict Wong), to vet a group of applicants vying for the chance to be born. Having previously been alive himself, Will is best suited to make the call and over the course of nine days engages the group in a number of activities designed to assist him in making his decision. Will spends the rest of his time monitoring his previous charges, witnessing and recording onto VHS tape, the significant moments of their lives.
Nine Days is the debut feature from Brazilian director Edson Oda, who picked up the 2020 screenwriting award for the movie at the Sundance Film Festival. It is a reflective and thought provoking rumination on life and how to live it.
Do not be off put by the unusual concept. While it might seem like an idea that could be hard to grapple with, by immersing this purgatory world in the familiar – a weatherboard house, the VHS tapes, the Walkman – Nine Days connects us to normality. In no time at all, we are fully invested in this world and its inhabitants.
As Will interviews the candidates, trying to get a sense of who they are and how suited to life they might be, we get to know and appreciate them over their fleeting lifespan. Will offers candidates an opportunity to experience one great memory in their ephemeral existence, which he and Kyo create using projectors, sound effects and whatever limited means are at their disposal. It brings a whimsical, creative element to the movie, reminiscent of Michel Gondry, or Paul King’s massively underrated Bunny and the Bull.
Despite clearly showing us there is existence beyond and before our own, Nine Days is not remotely concerned with religion or questions of theology. The movie does not address, nor is it interested in, proving the existence of a God. It simply chooses to focus on what it means to be alive – a philosophy that some might argue is best applied to life itself.
The cast is exemplary. Winston Duke is fantastic and strikes the perfect note as Will. Stern, but never cold or unlikeable. Dedicated to his job, but undermined by his own feelings and experiences as a living soul. It should come as no surprise that Benedict Wong is also brilliant as Kyo. Bringing a lighter, comedic touch to the film, Wong ensures the movie is never overwhelmed by melancholy. Of the candidates, Bill Sarsgaard, Tony Hale, Arianna Ortiz and David Rhysdahl bring life and humanity to their characters. And Zazie Beetz is outstanding as Emma – free thinking, inquisitive and able to reach Will, even through his emotional shell.
Oda keeps the movie nicely in balance, so Nine Days is neither sugar coated nor over-romanticised in its storytelling. Acknowledging that life can be cruel and violent and lonely, Nine Days asks us to resist the temptation to see only the bad. That there is beauty and wonder to be found everywhere. That ‘simple pleasures’ are a misnomer, because experiencing them is meaningful.
The result allows Nine Days to be simultaneously uplifting and devastatingly sad. This is a unique, engaging and often beautiful existential drama, that neither the written description nor trailer can do justice to. It is one of those movies you just need to experience.
‘Nine Days’ opens in Australian cinemas on July 15th, except for Sydney, where a new date is pending following lockdown announcements. In the US, ‘Nine Days’ opens in NY & LA on July 30th, followed by a nationwide release on August 6th.