Nine Days is the kind of film that hits everyone differently based on where they are in their life. Everyone has one or two of those movies. The Notebook hit you right when you were in the middle of dealing with a break-up. The Bucket List hit you right after your grandfather passed. The Green Knight hits you right when you are asking yourself, “what am I doing with my life?” (I’m mostly fine…I think.) Edson Oda’s directorial debut takes on the Beforelife, the Antelife. Whereas so many films, books, shows, and games take on purgatory and the Afterlife (I’m looking at you Dante’s Inferno and The Good Place), Nine Days makes you contemplate what comes before. And there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
Set in an anonymous desert, a lone house stands amongst the dust. Winston Duke, most famous for his role in Black Panther as the Jibari King M’Baku, is a man burdened with interviewing souls for the chance at life. The task is daunting to ponder. As he surveys screens playing out the lives of those he has sent before, you immediately feel the gravity of this task. You see the joy of childhood, the tribulations of teenage emotion, early adult success and failure. Winston Duke’s Will is an enigma, moving in silence, jotting notes, preparing for his next cohort of applicants.
Those applicants include Tony Hale (Arrested Development, Veep), Bill Skarsgard (IT, Allegiant), David Rhysdahl (The Revival, Black Swell), Arianna Ortiz (This is Us, The Wound), and Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2, Joker). Each of them vastly different personalities, each hoping to make it through the nine day process to getting placed with a life to live. What follows is a journey through what I can only describe as an emotional battlefield. We see the self-important, the self-deprecating, the overly positive, the deeply attached. The focus, however, centers on Skarsgard’s Kane and Beetz’s Emma, the former a realist and the latter an inquisitive soul.
Will is supported by Kyo, played absolutely brilliantly by Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange, The Martian). Kyo comes and goes frequently, initially defining his arrival with a bag of food and supplies, and acts as a sort of evaluator for Will’s final decision. Throughout the film, he adds levity to Will’s grim complexion.
Unlike The Green Knight, I didn’t find myself constantly gawking at the cinematography of Nine Days. But then, that’s not what this film is aiming for. It is essentially a bottle episode of a television show, taking place only in the house, with a few uses of the vast desert flats outside. Oda wrote this film with precision and care, centering the massive task in each scene, whether it be through symbolism or direct conversation. The applicants are at first inquisitive about the situation they find themselves in. They ask Will questions, hoping to flesh out the reality for the viewer and themselves. Then, as the film progresses, Will begins interviewing them. He proposes situations, some dire, some simple, hoping to glean from each person what it is they hold central to their personality. Each actor is given their chance to shine in their bespoke role. Kane replies with realism. Viewing each situation and weighing it against the reality of the world he is seeing in his sessions observing Will’s earlier send-throughs. Emma confronts Will’s questioning with her own, hoping to understand the nature of each situation before answering.
I am a sucker for good dialogue. I hold Aaron Sorkin on a pedestal that is very rarely approached by others. Often times that is the case because there aren’t many people who can write such rapid fire, intellectual word vomit. Oda doesn’t attempt to inundate us with the dialogue in this film. It is concise, emotional, and investigative. We learn as much about Will as we do his applicants as the film walks us towards its conclusion. While I wouldn’t knock Sorkin off of his pedestal in my mind, what Oda does here is equally laudable. It is tricky subject matter, and illustrating the gravity of the situation through individuals who are simultaneously coming to grips with their reality takes a deft hand. See, those not chosen for a life don’t get to come back with the next wave of applicants, they cease to exist entirely.
This conceit is one of the largest, if not the largest, emotional draw in this film. Without spoiling what absolutely should be experienced in the film, Will is emotionally invested in these people. He doesn’t just dismiss them, he offers them a glimpse at life in a way that is equally heartwarming and heartbreaking. Each instance takes a piece of you, and him, with it as it ends. It’s beautiful and melancholic.
Edson Oda is a name that we will hear again, and then again. As directorial debuts go, there are rarely such feats of emotional storytelling. Nine Days will make you sit and think about this place, this waiting room before life, in ways I imagine many people never have before. It’s poignant and gripping. And Winston Duke’s final monologue, a recital in a way, is the kind of emotional payoff that viewers will lap up. His animation in those closing moments is mesmeric and haunting and encouraging and morose.
Nine Days will hit everyone in a different place in their life, that much is fact. As I finished the film, holding my seven-month-old son, I couldn’t help but wipe away tears and wonder what kind of conversation did he have with Will that got him here? What does existence look like for the human soul before birth, how do people take the world in before they step into it themselves, will he feel the same way Will did, or Kane, or Emma? Who did I sit with, in those final moments before I was sent here? A new mental journey has been proposed here, and everyone will find it in a different place in life. Imagining this process has had my mind racing. What will it do for you? Let the thought wash over you, embrace it, and enjoy the ride. | Caleb Sawyer