Exploring philosophy, spirituality, life, death and the very breadth of the human condition, writer-director Edson Oda's debut feature is an ambitious, emotional mystery-cum-fantasy. Taken apart into its constituent components, bits of it superficially resemble the supernatural speculation of Pixar's Soul or the ethics-obsessed comedy of NBC's afterlife sitcom "The Good Place" or the heady surrealism of Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Or maybe it's the icy existentialism of Swedish master Ingmar Bergman that sticks out most. However you slice it, though, Nine Days is an impressive first effort.
In a rundown bungalow in the middle of nowhere (quite literally), a mysterious loner named Will (Winston Duke from Black Panther) stares at a bank of old television monitors. He's looking in on the lives of a random group of people as they navigate their ordinary daily lives on Earth. He takes notes of their progress, records their significant moments on VHS tape and files it all away for ... well, who knows? As the film progresses, it becomes more or less evident that Will is some sort of guardian angel, an arbiter who watches over a select batch of humans in the real world. The film provides little in the way of terminology or context, so we're left to form our own vocabulary and our own cosmological conclusions. (No talk of "Heaven" or "God" or any such niceties here.) What's clear is that Will has no influence over these people. He's simply an observer. Among Will's current batch of human charges are a bullied teen, a paraplegic police officer and a lonely violinist. The violinist, Amanda, is clearly Will's favorite, and he delights in awaiting her debut concert with a symphony orchestra. But one fateful day, she is killed in a car crash. Her monitor goes blank. Will is devastated. But he's got a job to do. His job is now to fill that empty slot on Earth.
A diverse group of unborn human souls show up at Will's bungalow in pseudo-Purgatory (actually, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah). It's his responsibility to interview them and decide which is most deserving of life. Over the course of the titular time period, Will gets to know the candidates. There's Kane (Bill Skarsgard from It), a tough guy with a violent, distrustful attitude about life on Earth. There's Alexander (Tony Hale from "Arrested Development"), a flippant fellow for whom everything is a joke. There's Maria (Arianna Ortiz), an emotional woman who looks at everything through a rose-colored romantic filter. And then there's the wild card. Emma (Zazie Beetz from Deadpool 2) seems unwilling to play by the rules (whatever those unspoken rules are). She skirts around Will's probing questions and refuses to engage in his "assignments." Even in his emotionally detached state, Will finds himself intrigued by her. One by one, the candidates are eliminated. And yet Will seems unable to cut free spirit Emma from the running.
In the midst of judging these oddball souls, Will distracts himself by digging up old videotapes of Amanda's life. He's searching through the minutia of her daily struggle, trying to figure out what went wrong. Did he make a mistake in choosing her? Was she unworthy of life? Will he make the same mistake again with these new candidates? As the languid string of philosophical conversations and interviews that make up Nine Days progresses, Will defensively expresses his "advantage" over other pre-life "interviewers" (like Benedict Wong from Doctor Strange, who shows up occasionally to offer advice). Will spent time in the real world once. He lived and evidently died. And he still carries the scars of that experience. Increasingly cynical, he feels Earth has become a dangerous "shithole" and that only the toughest candidates could survive there. Is he right? Or has he forgotten something fundamental?
There's a kind of low-tech magic on display in Nine Days. This could easily have been an art film filled with pretentious pondering (Terrence Malik's Tree of Life?) or a Hollywood spectacle stuffed with spiritual special effects (What Dreams May Come with Robin Williams?). Instead, this humble exercise argues that life is a tactile experience, not measured in grand gestures—but in the feel of sand between your toes, of wind in your hair, of peach fuzz in your mouth. Duke proves particularly adept at navigating this film's down-to-Earth style, providing a graceful and poetic moment of emotional impact on which to conclude this intentionally ambiguous, deeply heartfelt exploration of the meaning of life.
Written and directed by Edson Oda
Starring Bill Duke, Zazie Beetz, Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgard
Opens Friday in theaters
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