Above: "Nine Days" was written and directed by Edson Oda. (Photo/Sony Pictures Classics)
Movie review: "Nine Days," written and directed by Edson Oda, starring Winston Duke, starring Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Bill Skarsgård, Tony Hale, David Rysdahl.
Not a day goes by that some of us – likely many of us – wonder about the various whys and whats of life. Why am I here? Why am I the way I am? What is this thing called existence? What, if anything, is my purpose?
Some of us find the answers in religion. Some of us in action. Some of us avoid the very questions by pursuing the numerous avenues of denial at popular disposal – avenues ranging from drugs and drink to sexual stimulus and the striving for wealth and power. A particularly alluring choice is to pursue all these avenues at once.
Somewhere in all of this you’ll find those who look to the arts for their answers. And why not? All real art, in one way or another, examines the basic questions involving existence. This is especially true of cinema, as the film “Nine Days” – written and directed by Brazilian-born filmmaker Edson Oda – makes abundantly clear.
If, in the end, Oda doesn’t provide any real answers, he certainly asks the questions in an intriguing way.
“Nine Days” is set in an imaginative space, with a character named Will (played by Winston Duke), the only resident of a house sitting in the middle of a desert (the film’s outdoor scenes were shot in Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats).
Will has a curious occupation. He monitors the lives of a couple of dozen people, witnessing their experiences through their own eyes. Turns out he was the one who – though clearly marked by apparently harsh treatment in his own former life – chose these people to have their chance at existence. And it is his job – once they die, for whatever reason – to pick a replacement.
An opening appears when one of Will’s charges unaccountably passes on. Typically taciturn, and always professional, Will nevertheless is shaken by the fact that, as he admits, he didn’t see this death coming.
We are then introduced to several replacement candidates, from the questioning free spirit Emma (played by Zazie Beetz) to the tough-minded Kane (played by Bill Skarsgård), from the aging party-boy Alexander (played by Tony Hale) to the inhibited Mike (played by David Rysdahl). Each appears out of the foggy distance, and each is told the same thing: They are auditioning for a chance to be born. But there are no guarantees. In any event, the process will take no longer than nine days to play out – and maybe fewer.
Will does have an assistant, someone who advises him on his work, named Kyo (played by Benedict Wong). Besides being more empathetic to the souls, Kyo provides the film with its few humorous moments (at one point he even shouts out a convincing Tarzan yell).
And Will isn’t the only arbiter tasked to judge souls. At one point, Kyo brings in another arbiter in an attempt to get Will to rethink his process.
Which is what “Nine Days” comes down to: an examination of Will’s own wounded soul, one shaped by his tortured past, and whether he will come to see how that experience affects his decisions.
That’s just a guess, though. As I say, Oda never provides any real answers. We never know the specifics about Will’s past life, how he came to be in his current position nor why he is forced, strangely, to use dated VHS equipment for his record-keeping. We remain clueless, too, as to who or what is behind this whole process, not to mention where the souls come from or where they go when ultimately not chosen.
Oda does give us something: a climactic scene in which Will powerfully delivers snatches from Walt Whitman’s prose poem “Song of Myself.”
In the end, though, that just begs one further question: Is it enough to justify everything that came before? The answer to that is likely to be as hard to resolve as any query into the meaning of life itself.
An edited version of this review was broadcast previously on Spokane Public Radio.
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