Written and Directed by Edson Oda
Starring Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, David Rysdahl, Arianna Ortiz
What is life worth? Can the inescapable pain of one’s existence be conquered by being a good human? What does it even mean to be human? The eternal questions.
Cinema has been exploring these quandaries for decades upon decades. Filmmakers as varied as Frank Capra, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Alan Rudolph, Albert Brooks, and Wim Wenders have all created great works where the “otherworldly” keep a judgmental watch over a feeble humanity.
Now comes “Nine Days”, the feature-length directorial debut of writer/director Edson Oda, a somewhat affecting, beautifully shot, but ultimately static tale of “before life”.
Winston Duke (an actor who continues to impress with each performance) is Will, a selector of sorts who lives in a space that is not quite life. He monitors, interviews, and tests souls, looking to choose the next to be born.
Will’s house sits in an empty landscape and its walls are filled with televisions and other assorted types of analog equipment that allow him to study and take notes, scrutinizing how the souls would act in the real world. He has given each one a name and puts them through scenes that will challenge them. The trials of every soul become videotaped auditions being carefully selected by their otherworldly casting director.
Will exists in this deceptively lifeless desert with his own personal tribulations. He carries with him a great despair due to a tragedy regarding one of his former “students” during his personal time on Earth.
Will is a quiet man who sees everything, saying so much without many words. It is a grounded performance that proves Winston Duke is working his way to becoming one of our most important character actors.
Will has an assistant (the always good Benedict Wong, who dubbed the film “Spi-Fi” for “Spiritual Fiction”) who helps him with his latest batch of “hopefuls”. Bill Skarsgård, Arianna Ortiz, David Rysdahl, Zazie Beetz, and Tony Hale are the latest contenders. Each soul has nine days to prove their worth and fill a vacancy for an open soul.
It is Beetz’s Emma that really gets to Will. She is more inquisitive than most and refuses to answer his questions. For Will, Emma is a challenge. She could be a test or, perhaps, even dangerous for him and his place in the scheme of it all.
Beetz plays her role with an effortless naturalism that continues to make her one of the most intriguing actresses working today.
The rest of the cast does fine, but everyone plays it rather deadpan (save for Beetz) to where each character blends into the other performance-wise. Still, most of the actors get good moments. Sadly, many of their scenes are hampered by an uneven pacing that plagues much of the film’s structure. It doesn’t fully hurt the film but prevents it from ever reaching the seamless flow the filmmaker is going for.
Visually, Oda’s film is flawless. Wyatt Garfield’s cinematography is stunning and gives the film its ethereal glow, presenting it as a kind of philosophical head-trip. Whatever one’s final thoughts regarding Oda’s work, its look will leave a lasting impression.
There are moments where the film does come alive (the most moving coming in the reading of Walt Whitman) but we want the entire piece to go beyond its meditative state and find the emotion that the inhabiting characters (and director Oda) seek.
As a screenwriter, Oda is more interested in his work existing as a “message film” rather than one that presents a focused and logical point of view. The internal issues with his screenplay are the same ones I have with the rash of undercooked “Faith-Based” films produced by church organizations. I have nothing against spirituality in cinema (I find the works of Terrence Malick powerfully moving), but films such as these have a biased and one-note tunnel vision regarding getting their message out that they sacrifice any hopeful reality.
To be fair, I am not lumping “Nine Days” in with those cartoonishly preachy films, but its desire for “message over all” hurts the film’s intended impact.
There is a line from John Osborne’s 1956 play “Look Back in Anger”, “If you can’t bear the thought of messing up your nice tidy soul, you better give up the whole idea of life and become a saint… because you’ll never make it as a human being. It’s either this world or the next.”
As Will puts his souls through their tests, Earth or the “next world” will be the outcome for all but one. Osborne’s sixty-five-year-old quote echoes thematically throughout the film.
“Nine Days” is certainly a well-meaning piece and Edson Oda should be commended for bringing weighty ideas to the screen. While he ultimately does not fully bring them all together, his exploration of the soul is unique and well filmed.
On the surface, this is an ambitious film. Oda has created a piece where there is much discussion of the beauty and privilege of being alive; on what makes us human. Yet, by film’s end, Oda has not breathed enough life into his filmmaking to sustain a hold on his weighty subject.
The film becomes a well-written term paper from Philosophy class that receives an unfortunate “C” due to not fully fleshing out the profundity in the questions it raises. You can hear the professor telling him, “I love where you were going but you needed to expand on your ideas beyond a surface level.”
Certainly not a complete loss and nowhere near a bad film, “Nine Days” just misses the mark. But only just. I am interested to see where Edson Oda’s creative mind goes next.
R, 124 minutes, Sony Pictures Classics