Great films find a way to take the minor happenings of the human experience and express them so poignantly that it’s as if we’re seeing them for the first time. Edson Oda’s debut feature “Nine Days” is one such film, a singularly beautiful piece of evocative cinema designed to explore what it means to live.
We follow Will (Winston Duke), a calm and contained man whom we meet in his quaint house surrounded by ethereal desert. He sits watching television, only there are many screens, and each one shows a different POV shot. Quickly it becomes apparent that each screen represents a life in our world, and Will is who sent them there; he is a selector. In this otherworldly place, souls appear to meet selectors, in hopes that they choose them to be a lucky soul who lives. So, when Will’s favourite soul passes suddenly, her screen goes black, leaving him the solemn duty of filling the vacancy.
What proceeds to play out is one of film’s most powerful explorations of theology. Souls come to Will, and he commences a series of interviews to determine which one he’ll select. In between the discussions, they watch the screens to learn about life and interact with Kyo (Benedict Wong), a sort of assistant and friend to Will. At the start, there are many souls, and each comes and goes as Will names them and takes their photo. However, the bulk of Nine Days revolves around only five. They are as follows, Mike (David Rysdahl), Alexander (Tony Hale), Maria (Arianna Ortiz), Kane (Bill Skarsgård) and Emma (Zazie Beetz). Each one connects with Will in their own way as time slowly forces them to confront that if they are not selected, life as they know it ends. Here the idea of existence before birth is realised in a confronting manner; it’s a purgatory before any joy. Yet Oda embraces his sombre atmosphere, and in doing so, uncovers something undeniably hopeful about the human condition.
With five candidates and one spot to fill, we ultimately witness the heart-shattering conversations Will must have to send away the spirits not selected. When this occurs, he offers them the chance to experience the one thing they loved most while witnessing life. As these moments come alive, so begins some of the rawest and most impactful filmmaking I’ve seen in years. Here Oda takes his blank slate souls and explores them in a fashion that proves anyone, from pessimist to optimist and all in between, can experience the simple delights of living. One asks for the pleasures of an evening at the beach, and another the glories of a bike ride down the street, and when they get these things, the realisation that is all they’ll ever live hits, and it hits hard. Both moments are profoundly moving, and they elevate Nine Days above being a platitude and into the realm of a genuine masterwork.
Of course, this isn’t possible without the fantastic cast. The work from the entire ensemble glows with so much humanity and turmoil that they feel authentic even in their uniquely constructed world. Some are cerebral, some are blithe, others are kind, and some are too kind, but all of them are indelible, and each performance makes sure of that. The strongest of which is most certainly Duke’s. Will becomes obsessive over the death of his favourite soul, spending hours puzzling out how it is that she could die. It makes him a tortured figure as he goes about his job effectively replacing her, and Duke displays this with devastating repression and pitch-perfect sensitivity. It is the finest work of his short career, and I hope we see many more performances like it.
Nine Days is a gorgeous cinematic musing on the meaning of life, and it makes for an auspicious debut for Edson Oda, who is sure to become a star director in the near future.
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