Sometimes it’s impossible to oversell a film. No matter how hyperbolic your praise gets, it can never come close to the experience of watching a life-changing piece of art. Nine Days is one such masterpiece. Any attempt to review it should come with the caveat that it is brilliant, but its brilliance is hard to describe. It’s not that there have never been films that discuss how precious life is. In fact, one of the best companion pieces to this film is It’s a Wonderful Life, which deals with similar subject matter. But Nine Days is unique in its premise and its approach. It asks how we define what a “good” life is in the face of the pain that often accompanies being alive.
Nine Days centers around Will (Winston Duke), a man tasked with choosing unborn souls to live a life on Earth. He watches the lives of those he has already chosen on a wall of televisions. When one dies, he begins a selection process to “fill the vacancy” that they leave behind. Will was once alive himself, and it’s clear from the outset that he takes pride in choosing souls who do grand things on Earth. This is apparent in his interest in Amanda, a musical prodigy with a sensitive and caring heart.
Will is shattered when Amanda dies in a car crash that may not have been accidental. He’s desperate for answers, to know why and how she died and what signs he may have missed. But before he can come to terms with her loss, he is sent five new souls (Bill Skarsgård, Arianna Ortiz, Tony Hale, David Rhysdahl, and Zazie Beetz) to evaluate. Over nine days, he needs to figure out which soul will succeed on Earth.
But whose definition of success is he using? Each of the souls who arrive have different attributes that show they can accomplish a lot if given the chance. Will reminds us that while each soul will not remember him if they are selected, they will retain their essence. And so Will must decide which soul has a core self that can withstand the trials of life. In his view, life is hard and painful. Particularly after Amanda, he wants to be careful with his choice. But one soul decides to change everything from the moment she arrives late to her first interview.
Emma (Beetz, who is phenomenal) is different from the other souls, who are mostly focused on answering Will’s questions with the “right” answer. She often doesn’t give him an answer at all, more interested in him and his motivations. Already shaken, Will doesn’t know how to respond to Emma’s innocent questioning. Her relentless optimism about life is an antidote to Will’s darker view. As the days tick by, Will’s choice becomes more about his own fears than the candidates in front of him. Emma challenges him to look beyond his perceived failures and see the beauty in being alive.
Nine Days hits hard as it asks its questions about what constitutes a life well lived and who is worthy of life. At its core, this is a film about the value in life itself unrelated to what a soul might accomplish. While every actor is excellent, Duke walks away with the film. He has the audience in the palm of his hand from the start. Duke plays the entire spectrum of human emotion, ending with a poem from Song of Myself that left me in tears. It’s not the kind of flashy performance that usually gets awards attention, but it should.
Every aspect of this film is carefully considered and well executed, from the stunning desert locations shot beautifully by Wyatt Garfield to the score by Antonio Pinto. Writer/director Edson Oda makes his feature debut with Nine Days, and it’s an unforgettable one. He was inspired to write the film by his uncle’s death by suicide when he was a child, and the film can be interpreted as a gentle but direct challenge to hopelessness.
Oda clearly has a point of view, but like Will, he resists labeling characters or emotions as good or bad. Rather, he uses each soul to offer different perspectives. Everyone who views the film will likely come away with a different take on what, exactly, it all means. In the end, Nine Days is refreshing and wholly original with something important to say. It will stay with audiences long after the credits roll and is sure to be a modern classic.
Nine Days is in theaters now. Be sure to check out our interviews with the cast and director Edson Oda here.