Where oh where do I even begin with this one?
I know I’d typically start a review by going over the premise, but it won’t be that simple with Nine Days. Nothing about this movie is simple. See, what we’ve got here is an allegory. It doesn’t make any kind of literal or logical sense, this is a movie that works in more emotional and spiritual terms.
In other words, the world-building is broken and loaded with holes, and for better or worse, that’s completely besides the point. So don’t bother asking how any of this works or how it’s supposed to make any sense, because it quite deliberately doesn’t. If that’s a dealbreaker, don’t see the film. But if you’re interested in something that turns out to be genuinely moving and deeply effective in spite of that, read on.
The stage is set in… well, that’s never entirely clear, but we’ll call it Purgatory. By all appearances, all the action takes place in a house out in the middle of a desert. This is a vast expanse populated by souls, here represented by people with no histories and no memories, though they do still have personalities, philosophical beliefs, personal preferences, and so on.
Our protagonist is Will, played in a tour-de-force performance by Winston Duke. He’s an interviewer, which means that he interviews various souls who come to his house from the wastelands of Purgatory, and he selects one to be born in the world of the living. Alas, the interviewed candidates who don’t get selected quickly fade from existence.
Though Will can’t affect the living world in any substantial way, he can still monitor the lives of the souls he’s selected. In fact, he literally sees the living world through their eyes, broadcasted onto a television in his living room. Thus Will spends most of his time surrounded by roughly two dozen television sets, keeping painstaking records of the lives that began when he selected their souls. In this way, he can keep tabs on the living world that he’s sending these souls out into while also learning from his mistakes and successes.
To repeat, Will makes mistakes. He’s not infallible, he can’t see the future, and he doesn’t know everything. In fact, it’s explicitly stated that Will used to be alive at some point (the specifics of his life and death are kept unclear), so he is in fact only human. Though he’s admittedly a human who’s lived his own life and witnessed the lives of countless others, so he at least has some firsthand knowledge about what the living world is like and what it takes to live a happy, healthy, productive life. Even so, he’s certainly no angel, much less any kind of god.
At the start of the film, Will’s pride and joy is Amanda (Lisa Starrett) a brilliant and beautiful young woman who turned out to be a prodigious talent with a violin. She was on her way to play at a massive concerto, just before she was killed at the age of 28 in what appears to be a car accident. Though Will is typically a stoic presence who stays laser-focused on his work and makes great effort not to show any unprofessional emotion, he’s visibly shaken by Amanda’s death. He spends much of the film going over recordings of her life, reminiscing on fonder memories while he’s trying to get to the bottom of exactly what happened with her death. Not that Will could’ve known everything, and he would’ve been powerless to do anything even if he had known, but Will desperately needs this closure and he’s pathologically incapable of moving on.
Nevertheless, Will’s wall of televisions has a vacancy, which means it’s time to spend the next nine days interviewing a new batch of contestants to see which one will get to be born into a new life.
- Tony Hale plays “Alexander”, who wants to kick back, make friends, and have a good time.
- Bill Skarsgard plays “Kane”, a slightly more argumentative candidate inclined to give as good as he gets.
- David Rhysdahl plays “Mike”, a shy and artistic soul.
- Arianna Ortiz plays “Maria”, a sweet and empathetic soul with so much love to give.
- Perry Smith plays “Anne”, who apparently got cut for time, because she seems to disappear as soon as she’s introduced.
Special mention must be given to Zazie Beetz, in the role of “Emma”. She’s a special case, because Will has absolutely no idea what to do with her. Will’s typical interview style involves presenting the candidates with various moral dilemmas and unwinnable scenarios — for instance, the first question he asks every candidate is a variation of the Trolley Problem. But Emma is so naturally inquisitive and unfailingly optimistic that she persistently looks for another option to every problem she’s faced with. Moreover, of all the candidates, she’s the one who shows the keenest interest in who Will really is as a person (something Will himself has desperately attempted to bury) and the people whose lives are on display in his living room.
Rounding out the cast is Benedict Wong in the role of Kyo. This character is unique in that he lives and works in Purgatory, yet he was never alive. He’s not an interviewer and he has no real authority, but he’s exceptionally valuable in a support and advisory role for Will. I’ll give you an example.
In the process of eliminating a candidate, Will asks them to write down a moment they saw on his television screens, specifically a moment that feels meaningful to them. Will and Kyo then use whatever scraps are on hand to recreate that moment as best they can. Thus the candidate gets a brief glimpse of what it’s like to really live before they fade away. These scenes are easily among the most creative, heartfelt, and breathtaking in the whole movie.
Moreover, Kyo tells us that Will is apparently the only interviewer who does this for his candidates. It helps to humanize the character, reminding us that however dispassionate he may appear, Will really does have an appreciation for life and the decision to literally erase a soul from existence is not a responsibility he takes lightly.
At the center of the film is the question of who deserves to live. More specifically, it’s all about the question of whether it’s better to be kind or strong. Will doesn’t want to send a monster into the world, but he doesn’t want to send a lamb out to the slaughter, either. Will wants to find a soul who’s capable of handling the cruelties of the world, seeing which ones can stand up to a psychological trial by fire. Yet he also has to spare a bit of time to focus on what’s good and beautiful in life, and he’s having a difficult time of that while he’s still grieving over Amanda.
It’s quite telling that Will offers each eliminated soul one glorious and meaningful moment before they fade away, yet he’s come to treat that beautiful gift as a formality. If he’d remembered what that one glorious moment really meant, he might remember that there’s meaning to be found in every moment, and every second is a gift to be cherished. Even here in Purgatory, every second is so precious because each candidate only has nine days at most to prove themselves, and the interview period could be cut short at any time for any reason. And at the end, the candidates will either fade away or be reborn with no memory of their time in Purgatory.
All the more reason to savor every moment, even under such a terribly stressful time.
Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgard, and Benedict Wong are all operating at full capacity in their established wheelhouses. Zazie Beetz once again proves herself a criminally underrated talent. Winston Duke brings the house down with a captivating and dynamic performance. Yet the loudest applause must be reserved for Edson Oda, here making his writing/directing feature debut. This whole movie is bold, it’s stylish, it’s creative, it’s heartfelt… basically put, this is exactly the kind of film that could only be made by a newcomer with no idea of what his limits really are. I hope with all my heart that this isn’t the best that Oda has to offer, because I’ll be waiting for his sophomore effort with great interest.
Nine Days is all the more beautiful precisely because of how strange it is. There’s no pretense that any of this makes any kind of logical sense, and the world-building falls apart with even the slightest scrutiny. Yet the performances are magnificent, the production design and editing are perfectly on point, and the whole movie is bursting with heart. It’s a small, quirky, and intimate film that asks big questions of the audience, challenging us to figure out the life we want to have and what kind of a world we want to build.
This is absolutely the kind of film that has to be experienced at least once. Everybody should know how powerful a film can be without keeping to conventional narrative limits, and everyone should at least consider the big questions that the film demands of us. And if that means seeing the movie, that’s your cross to bear.