If there’s one thing we humans are known for, it’s relentlessly seeking meaning in a chaotic and unpredictable world. Our stories throughout time have been laden with a desire for answers, with philosophy and spirituality serving as mechanisms by which we try to understand the nature of life. It’s comforting to think that somewhere in the universe there’s a structure or order that has things well in hand: even if those of us on the ground are running around like chickens with our heads cut off, that some ineffable something has it all under control. From the endlessly imaginative mind of Edson Oda in his feature debut, Nine Days is a gorgeously metaphysical exploration of what happens before we are born, creating a sense of calm and wonder that is truly a triumph.
Winston Duke plays Will, a mysterious figure who lives alone in an isolated homestead, watching footage of other peoples’ lives while taking copious notes on everything that happens to him. Sitting in his living room, there are small tube TVs stacked atop one another, creating a sort of picture-in-picture of humanity. He clearly has an emotional connection to all of these lives, experiencing their ups and downs with the concerned eye of a proud and deeply involved parent. But when tragedy strikes for one of his chosen people, Will is left with an opening in his roster.
Nine Days takes an inventive approach of representing the pre-birth selection process as something akin to a job interview. One by one, souls turn up at his front door, eager for the opportunity to be born. Will has nine days to make a decision of which soul will be chosen: the lucky winner will become a spark of life, and the others will be faced with…well, not death, but a similar sort of nothingness. The souls have just nine days to prove themselves worthy of life, or to fade into oblivion.
Over the course of this period, Will gives his candidates several tests. They are placed into hypothetical scenarios forcing them to make decisions that question their morals. But they’re also given the opportunity to observe humans onscreen and are encouraged to write down everything they like and don’t like about what they see. Some soak in the human experience, awestruck by weddings and ice cream and the soothing sound of waves on the beach, while others are horrified by its cruelty. Will, for his part, seems part therapist, part wildly inscrutable HR manager. The souls he interviews seem to think that he is judging them on their moral instincts, and making a decision based on who he believes most deserves to be human. On the contrary. He’s looking for the candidate who is strong enough to stand a chance against the worst that humanity has to offer. To the souls, being born is a gift; to Will, it’s a burden he will reluctantly place on one of their shoulders. He knows what struggles they will face, and is terrified of the prospect of inadvertently sending another lamb to the slaughter.
Winston Duke’s performance in this role is truly remarkable. There’s a deep reserve of empathy underneath his stony, fastidious demeanor, and it’s clear that his experience as the only one involved in this process who has actually lived a human life weighs heavily on him. He provides a strong, comforting presence, the person you would feel good about having in charge of these sorts of things. And the way that he occasionally betrays the intensity of his emotions, how much he too is looking for answers, is profoundly affecting. The rest of the cast is equally impressive, although there are two performances aside from Duke that stand out. Benedict Wong plays Kyo, a supervisor who, in spite of the fact that he’s never actually lived on Earth, is perhaps the most human of all the characters in Nine Days. His warmth and humor perfectly capture his fascination with humanity and deep desire to experience life. And then there’s Zazie Beetz as Emma, a gentle, curious soul who sees everything, feels everything, questions everything. Sensitive and empathetic, she embodies the expression, “too precious for this world.”
Aside from the performances, Oda builds an entrancing and imaginative world within this mysterious metaphysical waystation. His work features a number of surprising juxtapositions that somehow just seem to work within the space. Will’s cozy, mid-20th century American farmhouse exists within a sparse, abstract landscape with seemingly unending stretches of emptiness and fog. His work contains within it powers of unimaginable scope that allow him to see every moment of a person’s life, but they’re viewed on tube televisions with footage recorded onto individually labeled VHS tapes. In this way, Oda takes the transcendental and unknowable expanse of the universe and makes it familiar.
Nine Days is an incredibly rewarding cinematic experience, one that couches its intellectual and philosophical musings in a deep, reverent love for humanity. The way that it highlights the wide range of human experience, from massive, life-changing events to the small, underappreciated moments of simple joy, reminds the viewer of what it means to be alive.