Life and loss is a universal theme, one that every single person experiences countless times throughout their lives, but it’s also a completely individual and unique experience for all of us. It’s an aspect of reality that we can never escape from, but Edson Oda’s feature directorial debut Nine Days balances the personal with the universal, wrapping these themes around a high concept supernatural drama that instantly marks him out as a talent to keep an eye on.
The story was inspired by the death of the filmmaker’s uncle, who committed suicide at the age of 50. Oda was impacted by how heavily the shocking news revolved almost entirely around the circumstances, and not the life he’d lived up until that point, and that informs the entire perspective of Nine Days‘ protagonist, played by Black Panther star Winston Duke in an outstanding performance that allows him to showcase a level of range and versatility he’s rarely been afforded in his career so far.
Duke, who also takes an executive producer’s credit, plays Will, an arbiter who once experienced a life of his own, but now oversees the selection process to deem which unborn souls are worthy of being given the greatest gift of all. As he spends time with each of the prospective candidates, all of whom possess an entirely different outlook on what life is and how it should be lived, his entire worldview slowly shifts as he forges a connection with Zazie Beetz’s Emma, the second of the movie’s many standout talents.
If that sounds heavy and self-serious, which it can be at points, Nine Days isn’t a po-faced reflection on what it means to live by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, it’s a unique and thought-provoking rumination on existence as seen through the eyes of a cross-section of personal opinions and beliefs, all tied to Will trying to figure out why one of his favored souls on Earth had died just as she was on the cusp of success as a concert violinist, upending everything he thought he knew about what makes one soul more valuable than the other.
There’s a stripped-down aesthetic to Nine Days despite the fantastical trappings, with Will monitoring human life through a wall of old TV monitors, storing the memories on VHS tapes and taking handwritten notes on each of his charges, which he stores in a dusty filing room. His old friend Kyo, played by Benedict Wong relishing the chance to sink his teeth into an all-too-rare meaty supporting role, has never lived before so he cant understand exactly what Will’s going through, but their warm and yet fractious dynamic informs a great deal of who Will is, and why he’s turned out the way he has.
The ensemble cast are excellent across the board, and while the screenplay for Nine Days is very thin on levity and humor, several of the key players provide it through the strength of their performances alone. Tony Hale’s sarcastic Alexander allows the actor to put his expert comic timing to more dramatic use, while Bill Skarsgård’s Kane is the cynic of the group, Arianna Ortiz’s Maria the hopeless romantic, and David Rysdahl’s Mike the sensitive pessimist. That might be describing the characters broadly, but each member of the roster puts their own spin on one-note archetypes to give them the full three dimensions.
It’s the Will/Emma relationship that drives most of the narrative, though, and the prickly early exchanges between the two leads to a gradual thawing, culminating in a third act finale reminiscent of the grandstanding romance that isn’t even anything approaching a love story. It’s a testament to Duke and Beetz that they get you so invested in how things will end, even though Nine Days essentially takes place in a form of existential purgatory where nobody’s guaranteed to even exist in the most standard sense of the word.
Nine Days is an incredibly ambitious first film, and Oda seamlessly moves between the dark, dusty interiors of Will’s home to the sun-bleached nothingness that exists beyond the four walls to outline the stark differences between his inner personality and his role in the grander scheme of things, while there are several incredibly moving sequences of those rejected for the opportunity of life getting the chance to relive a memory of their choice before they simply fade away.
Imagine a philosophical Hunger Games with shades of Pixar’s Soul, reminiscent of early Spike Jonze (who fittingly executive produces), a little bit of The Good Place, a dash of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and lashings of 1998 Japanese film After Life, and you’re maybe halfway to capturing what Nine Days is. What’s definitely not up for debate is that as a visual and narrative calling card, Edson Oda has instantly put himself on the map, thanks to a hefty assist from his cast and crew, with special mentions for cinematographer Wyatt Garfield and composer Antônio Pinto.
Nine Days is a fascinating, thought-provoking and incredibly moving feature directorial debut from Edson Oda.