Nine Days (United States, 2020)

August 05, 2021
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Nine Days Poster

Edson Oda’s debut feature, Nine Days, is a pure allegory; the film works as an extended philosophical rumination but fails as a story. Although interesting in many aspects, Nine Days is as often frustrating as it is compelling, and the denouement feels forced. The production is also too wordy, with pretentious-sounding dialogue becoming as distracting as the retro technology that’s intended to make the movie’s reality seem fantastical and otherworldly.

The storyline bears a passing resemblance to the one used by Pixar for last year’s Soul. Both films deal with the existential possibility of life before birth and what “qualifications” might result in a pre-soul being granted the opportunity to be born. Soul does a better job with the material than Nine Days, perhaps because the former film is more concerned with developing characters and telling a story than pursuing a metaphysical approach. Oda has claimed that his movie was inspired by Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life and Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and it’s easy to see the influences, but those films were more firmly anchored in their own realities and had better-developed narrative frameworks.

Nine Days transpires in a limbo of sorts where a lonely caretaker named Will (Winston Duke) lives in an isolated house in the middle of a desert. With the exception of occasional visits from his friend Kyo (Benedict Wong), he is by himself. He spends most of his day sitting in front of a bank of CRT monitors, peering into the lives of others. At first, we mistake him for a voyeur, but it gradually becomes clear he’s much more. Will’s job is to screen candidates to determine which selections should be sent to Earth to be born. Seemingly, Will’s only qualification for the job is that he once “lived,” although the details of his time in a corporeal body were less-than-happy. The people he watches on the TVs are the ones he sent to be born. Then, his greatest success, a concert violinist named Amanda, commits suicide. Will is devastated and begins to doubt everything about himself, his duty, and the meaning of life. And, while trying to figure out why Amanda killed herself and how he was unaware of a problem, he must choose her replacement.

There are five candidates: Mike (David Rysdahl), a sensitive artist; Maria (Arianna Ortiz), a timid woman who develops a crush on Will; Alex (Tony Hale), a friendly man who ignores the ugly side of living and is happy to just sit back and share a beer; Kane (Bill Skarsgard), a tough guy; and Emma (Zazie Beetz), a free-spirit who is always brutally honest. Of these five, only one will be chosen; they have a period of nine days to prove themselves. The un-chosen will vanish into the ether, their existences snuffed out almost as quickly as they began. Before they go, Will offers them the opportunity to live one moment of their choosing. Then, almost as in a horror movie, they are removed one-by-one from the storyline.

Nine Days is rich in ideas although some of its thematic material isn’t as deep as Oda believes it to be. Nevertheless, the movie provokes thoughts about the meaning of life, the importance of the present moment, and the question of whether human beings are inherently good and moral individuals (with the miscreants being outliers) or vile monsters (with those who practice kindness as exceptions). At one point, Will laments that he selects flowers while others send pigs to eat them up. The acting is strong, with Winston Duke imbuing Will with a soul-sickness that we feel as much as observe.

Oda evidently isn’t concerned with the concept of world-building. Conceptually, his idea of limbo is half-baked with a lot of ideas that are at best only partially realized. The filmmaker would no doubt argue that these things don’t matter but they are sufficiently distracting to create a tug-of-war with the strongly constructed atmosphere. Budgetary limitations no doubt affected the look of Will’s house. However, instead of seeming timeless and old-fashioned, it looks more like a shabby, unkempt bachelor’s pad.

Nine Days is likely to appeal to those who prefer experimental explorations into philosophical arenas and don’t mind a dose of pretentiousness. Those who have an affinity for more traditional, narrative-driven motion pictures may be frustrated by the experience. Although Oda’s debut offers glimpses of a potentially gifted director, the project feels unfinished and fails to match his impressive vision with an equally compelling story.

Nine Days (United States, 2020)

Director: Edson Oda
Cast: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgard, Arianna Ortiz, David Rysdahl
Screenplay: Edson Oda
Cinematography: Wyatt Garfield
Music: Antonio Pinto
U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 2021-07-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1