The feature directorial debut from Edson Oda, Nine Days is a powerfully contemplative narrative about all the contradictions that come with being born into this unpredictable, often unfair thing called life. Featuring a nearly heartbreaking central performance by Winston Duke (Black Panther), the film makes concrete concepts and ideations like the afterlife (or perhaps the “before” life, as it were), heaven, reincarnation and others that are typically impossible to visualize. It’s all so special, it’s hard to believe that it’s Oda’s first feature film; our good luck, hopefully it bodes well for what he’ll realize on screen in the future.
Duke is Will, a quietly stern administrator who oversees a process that gives souls a chance to be born. When they’re not interviewing potential new souls and putting them through their paces, he and his co-worker Kyo (Benedict Wong) spend their days watching VHS tapes of lives being lived, the souls they chose to go to Earth going about their days. One in particular is a violinist, a talented young musician who fills Will with such visible pride, he’s practically glowing. Is there anything better than seeing a soul you chose experiencing the best life has to offer?
Which is why it’s all the more shattering when Will sees the unthinkable unfold on Amanda’s monitor: on the way to a concert she (and Will and Kyo) has been looking forward to, she crashes her car in an accident that brings her promising young life to an end. The accident leaves Will completely off-kilter; for a man who prides himself on his soul selecting and those lives they go on to live, seeing something like this has Will completely second guessing his own role in this monumental process.
But souls must be selected, so Will continues his process of choosing who will move into real life by evaluating a revolving door of candidates. All in small but meaningful roles, Oda presents a parade of character actors who elevate the film’s quieter moments simply through their talent and charisma on screen, including Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, Arianna Ortiz and Zazie Beats as Emma. Each is subjected to a series of questions meant to test their ability to handle the inevitable curveballs they’ll encounter should they be selected to be born. Most are able to navigate their way through Will’s tests, obscure as they may seem. But Emma is different, and every time she pushes back on Will’s questions, Will is forced to reevaluate what he thinks he knows about what it takes to head into life.
Between Oda’s sensitive directing and Duke’s nuanced emoting, Nine Days (the time it takes to process the new candidates) wrangles some very large notions into something surprisingly relatable. Why couldn’t it be that somewhere, before all of us are us, we are someone somewhere desperate to become us? As Will’s world shifts beneath and around him, as Emma pushes him to think about just what’s at stake with every question he asks, every selection he makes, what has been so clearcut for him for so long becomes almost more than he can handle. The film’s final moments, and Duke’s dynamic final monologue, are some of the most poignant in recent memory.
Nine Days is now playing in select theaters.
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