Nine Days Review – A Character-Based Drama That Has Stellar and Beautiful Moments

Edson Oda’s feature debut Nine Days asks what it is to live. The answer is complex and beyond most of us, and to an extent it is beyond Oda himself, so he has crafted an intimate drama about the greatest mystery of all and whilst he grapples with some of the larger philosophical debates that surround our time on earth, he grounds the film by drawing a small portrait that illuminates as often as it confounds.

In a nowhere space between life and death Will (Winston Duke) watches through old television sets the lives of souls he has chosen to experience life. From the young boy who is constantly bullied at school, to a young bride-to-be, through to a disabled ex-policeman he takes notes on their everyday experiences and files them with recorded video cassettes. Of particular interest to him is the young music prodigy Amanda who kills herself on the way to a major recital. For Will, Amanda’s death is a failure on his behalf. How could he have sent a soul that wasn’t strong enough to survive? Furthermore, how could he not see that Amanda was suicidal?

To fill the gap left by Amanda Will has to interview a series of new souls over a nine-day period to determine which of them will be given the chance of life. If they are not chosen they cease to exist even in the liminal space between his reality and the human reality. Each soul will remain themselves if chosen to live but they will have no memory of Will and the before time.

Bringing together a collection of diverse personalities Will sets them questions and tasks to assess their suitability. The questions range from the kind of first-year philosophy conundrums often set to establish ideas like choosing for the greater good to simply asking the souls to watch the lives of the living on television and telling Will what they do and don’t like about what they see.

Assisting will in his choice is Kyo (Benedict Wong) who can only help Will and not interview subjects. Only a soul who has lived can be an interviewer. Kyo is a mysterious presence but in many ways the audience’s de facto window on Will. Who was Will when he was alive? Only Kyo knows and Will is utterly reticent to discuss his life with any of the curious candidates. Edo’s script suggests that Will lived a sad and lonely life on Earth and with the death of Amanda he’s particularly keen to avoid sending a soul that is too sensitive to live lest they are destroyed by the harshness of what life can offer.

Playing the roles of the souls are a number of actors including Zazie Beetz as Emma, Bill Skarsgård as Kane, Arianna Ortiz as Maria, and Tony Hale as Alexander. Each soul is defined and a fully formed person, yet they are confused by the rules that will possibly allow them to experience life. Of all the souls Emma is the only one who refuses to engage completely with Will. Emma knows that she possibly only has days to live so even in the before time she completely embraces the life that she has. Will is deeply challenged by her attitude which makes him assess both his position as an interviewer and to contemplate his own time on Earth.

By focusing the film mostly on Will, Edo crafts a character-based drama that doesn’t get as bogged down by the high-concept philosophical questions it elicits. Winston Duke is the beating heart of the film and his restrained and at times heartbreaking performance carries the piece where it could have easily faltered. Zazie Beetz and Benedict Wong are both sterling as supporting characters. Beetz’s Emma is a beacon of life within the confines of a non-life.

Nine Days opened to much acclaim at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and it is a festival film. For a general audience perhaps, it is a little too ponderous is places. However, Edo creates some stellar and beautiful moments which remind the viewer of why life is worth living – the feeling of the ocean, the wind in one’s hair when riding a bike, the gentle lover turning the light off so their partner can sleep. It’s easy to forget the simplicity of what it is to live when faced with so much despair, yet Oda reminds us that both can co-exist, and it is worth risking the worst for even the most ephemeral times that are the best.

Director: Edson Oda

Cast: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong

Writer: Edson Oda

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!