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Review: Incredible 'Nine Days' a visionary plunge into existentialism

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


Unafraid of taking bold creative risks and trusting audiences to piece together a complex, heart wrenching story, Edson Oda’s incredibly moving “Nine Days” scratches a rare creative itch where you’re ready to press play again the moment it’s over because the journey moved too quickly. Having premiered pre-pandemic at the Sundance Film Festival, Oda’s debut will register a different impact on moviegoing and perhaps stir new perspectives. The story of an “auditor,” alone and isolated, in the realm that sits somewhere between life and death, determining which souls get a shot on earth and which fade into oblivion is a heavy topic that Oda never takes for granted. “Nine Days” explores existentialism with a delicate lens, which after two viewings, left this viewer in awe. Winston Duke, who already showed outstanding dramatic and comedic range in “Us” and “Black Panther,” gives the performance of a lifetime playing a vulnerable man caught in an unenviable position of having to choose who lives and dies while struggling with his own demons.

Oda’s script takes time to get things brewing, but it’s all part of the process as Will (Duke) sits on the couch watching specific people live their lives from their own point of view through a stack of various television monitors. Like an inversion of Ed Harris from “The Truman Show,” Will takes pages of notes and rigorously studies the subjects on his screens while keeping the scribbles in filing cabinets and footage on VHS tapes. It’s strange trying to ascertain what’s happening at first, especially as Will’s home looks planted in the middle of the Mojave desert without any signs of life. When his energetic neighbor Kyo (Benedict Wong) arrives, the fuzzy focus of “Nine Days” starts becoming clearer.

Keeping things simple on the screen, but much grander in scope, Oda doesn’t spoon feed answers nor riddle the film with nonsensical narration to explain what exactly Will and Kyo do, but it’s not a difficult plot to get behind. Like judges awarding “best-in-show,” Will and Kyo spend their days evaluating eligible candidates to become the souls of newborn humans on earth. If chosen, after a nine day trial period of which numerous tests and personality quizzes get spooled out, the soul will have no recollection of Will and their time in his metaphorical limbo and have a life. The candidates arrive on Will’s doorsteps as physical manifestations of themselves ready to prove their worth to the selection committee of two, except Will and Kyo differ in certain aspects, namely Will who, during an unspecified time period, actually walked on earth as a human. Why that makes him extra qualified or chosen for the gig is something that eats away at him, but that doesn’t detract from the job at hand.

And his latest task comes at an emotional boiling point following the shocking death of one of his prime pupils, Amanda (Lisa Starrett) where he must work diligently to fill the void she left behind. Enter Anne (Perry Smith), Kane (Bill Skarsgard), Maria (Arianna Ortiz), Mike (David Rysdahl), Alexander (Tony Hale) and Emma (Zazie Beetz), all prime candidates for the vacancy on earth. Their tasks might not seem like much at first: watching television and discussing how it makes them feel or answering questions relating to outlandish life or death scenarios, but deep down their studies ultimately reveal their true selves. Most of the candidates stick to the status quo, but there’s something about Emma who both perplexes and aggravates Will the most. Her inquisitive nature and ability to subvert expectations sends him into a frenzy. Is she dangerous or is Will losing his touch?

As the eliminations pile up, Oda’s script digs into the deep trauma of Will’s fractured human state. He’s lost and searching for his own way out. He doesn’t know how to handle emotions, because the only human connection he interacts with is that of a television screen (another metaphor for our current obsession with technology). Along comes Emma who forces the closeted Will to live again and ask questions he was afraid to ponder. His spiritual journey and overall arch is a thing of beauty, and that’s a testament to Duke and Beetz’ exceptional performances but also Oda’s impeccable script.

We’ve all dealt with optimism that perhaps living our truth is overrated and removed from our own perceptions of reality. Oda channels such radiant energy throughout “Nine Days” as he bounces around between the contestants and their judge, jury, and executioner. Like Will on screen, we’re all destined to find our purpose at some point-and it might take longer than others-but if you trust the process and engage with the unknown, the answers eventually reveal themselves.

Grade: A

NINE DAYS is now playing in select theaters and opens nationwide Friday, August 6th.


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