"Nine Days" should be required viewing heading into the 2021 awards season. It has a slow, deliberate and contemplative pace, and deals with some complex themes, but unlike some other recent pretentious art films (cough cough "The Green Knight" cough cough), "Nine Days" is fully accessible to anyone with a soul.
What a way to announce your presence on the scene as a filmmaker. "Nine Days" is written and directed by 38-year-old Japanese-Brazilian filmmaker, Edson Oda, a man who first worked in advertising, creating video campaigns for the likes of Johnson & Johnson and Whirlpool. In a Hollywood Reporter article after "Nine Days" debuted at Sundance in 2020, he says the film began with a question: "If I could just make one movie in my entire life, what would that movie be?"
It's clear that he put it all into his first (and definitely not his only) feature-film, as did its star, Winston Duke, whose performance in "Nine Days" is among the very best of the year thus far. Duke plays Will, a sort of "guardian angel" whose job is to select human souls for their chance to be born into "the real world." He conducts interviews with these unborn souls over the course of nine days, before finally choosing who gets to live and who gets to...well...not live.
If this concept sounds heady, it sort of is. We meet Will, who seems to be a quiet and focused man who spends his time staring at a wall of TVs. He is seemingly in charge of a certain amount of souls, all of whose lives play out in first-person on the screens in front of him. He has no control over these people, but he watches closely, takes notes on their activities and achievements, and records them all on a series of VHS tapes. He is especially enamored with one particular soul, a woman who is a talented violinist on her way to a major concerto. It seems he is invested in her because - as a child - she drew a picture of Will and presented it to her parents as her "invisible friend." Odd, because no soul that has "made it" to the real world is supposed to have any such memory of Will's world.
Will has a friend, Kyo (Benedict Wong), who comes to visit Will on occasion and who seems generally interested in his work. Kyo has a job in this "purgatory" as well, but of the two, Will was actually "alive" once in the real world, whereas Kyo never has been given the chance. As they gather excitedly to watch the young woman's concerto, tragedy - unexplained and sudden - strikes. There is now a new opening on Will's "soul wall," so he brings in a series of unborn souls to begin a new round of interviews for the available slot of life.
Alexander (Tony Hale) seems to think everything is a joke. Kane (Bill Skarsgard) presents himself as a terrific candidate. Maria (Arianna Ortiz) may have some emotional weaknesses. But it's Emma (the astonishing Zazie Beetz), who really catches Will's attention.
Edson Oda creates a fascinating world, questioning the very meaning of what it means to be alive. It's pretty simplistically crafted...much of what happens unfolds within the confines of Will's house, to the point where you might wonder if "Nine Days" began as a stage production (it did not). Winston Duke - known up until this point mostly as M'Baku from Marvel's "Black Panther" and from Jordan Peele's "Us," is stellar. He commands each of his scenes with the patience of a surgeon-at-work, with each cut made with expert precision. There is an underlying pain to his performance that is eventually revealed, and he quite literally comes alive in a closing scene that should all but cement his Oscar nomination (or at least it would if I was voting).
Oda's creativity knows no bounds, and this odd little corner of the spiritual universe leaves us with just as many questions as it does provide answers. But "Nine Days" is the sort of film that is never pretentious or overbearing, and it raises these questions without ever showing conceit...these are not questions that Oda claims to have answers to, but inquiries for us all to ponder and try to slowly digest.
Will is trapped in his past (thus the rich 1980s motif in the film, with messy file cabinets and VCRs galore), and is trying to guard other souls from the same pain and suffering he endured. Oda focuses his film on the importance of little moments, on what it means to really be alive, and if "being alive" must be defined at all by a place and time.
I could go on for nine days about "Nine Days." It's a film that for me holds deep meaning, and the rare cinematic experience where I wasn't quite sure what I was watching, but never once felt compelled to look away...less I miss one of the many important little moments in this terrific film.
Genre: Drama, Fantasy.
Run Time: 2 hours 4 minutes.
Starring: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgard.
Written and Directed by Edson Oda (feature-film debut).
"Nine Days" opens in the Detroit market on Friday, August 6th, 2021.
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