One of the most cinematic questions of all time is “what is the meaning of life?,” and in “Nine Days,” writer / director Edson Oda explores this idea in a unique way by taking the stance that being born is the ultimate goal, not life’s beginning. This stunning feature debut is a slow-moving examination of ethics, morality, and spirituality, and is elevated by exceptional performances from the cast.
Recluse Will (Winston Duke) is a god-like man who interviews candidates, all new souls, who are competing for a “job” as a living, breathing human on Earth. Choosing which soul is the right fit for each human body takes a mental and emotional toll on the man, as those who aren’t chosen disappear as dust into the universe, never being granted the opportunity to be born and experience life. Will has been alive before, but now he’s one of the gatekeepers living in a barren desert locale. Will keeps files and VHS videotapes on all of the souls he’s chosen to be made human, and like a proud father he watches them succeed, fail, die young, and grow old. Every nine days, a new group of souls arrive at his door, and Will once again has the painful task of eliminating them one by one until the final victor emerges. The souls have just nine days to prove they are the worthy choice and for most, this time will be the only thing they’ll ever experience.
It’s deep. It’s challenging. The film reminds me a lot of Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” but it’s not as abstract. The film is a little pretentious, but not unbearably so until the end (when Duke delivers a “to the rafters” monologue of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” paired with primal screams). While the pacing is deliberate, it never feels slow. I wanted more of the story even after two hours.
There’s much to dissect here, especially as the group of souls (Zazie Beetz, Arianna Ortiz, David Rysdahl, Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård) face traumatic hypothetical situations. Will tests their character and pushes them to the limits. “There are no right or wrong answers,” he stresses, and each soul brings their different personality and moral code to their “job” interview. Every one is different, and all of their answers are valid. Oda does a terrific job at expressing this through his screenplay, which is as thoughtfully crafted as the performances.
“Nine Days” is one of those unforgettable movies that will have you thinking, reflecting, and dissecting its intricacies for a long, long time. What an impressive and exciting debut feature from Oda.