In a small house, alone in the desert, Will (Winston Duke) watches. Nine Days, the wrenching feature debut from writer/director Edson Oda, understands that we are an existence of voyeurism. We’re only truly living to our fullest when we can see, share, feel the experiences of others. Will is a sort of hiring manager for life itself. As painful as it is for him to accept (he’s obviously grown fond of his previous picks), there is a new vacancy, and there are a few candidates. Over a nine-day process, almost like an audition for a reality show—especially fitting considering that the plane they would leave behind houses a watcher carefully and compassionately taking in a televised wall of literal life-streams—Will and his friend/co-worker Kyo (Benedict Wong) whittle down the applicants to find the best person suited for the gift of worldly existence. Oda’s compact, stirring, metaphysical sci-fi stageplay about the ends and beginnings of life—and all the wonder ripe for the sharing contained between—is as moving a debut as you’ll see all year.
First, it takes some real creative brass to try to tackle such an ambitious, heady and easily trite topic. Second, it takes some major storytelling talent—both in the crafting of the script and the handling of its actors—to overcome those obstacles while keeping the dignity of all involved intact. Nine Days has quiet confidence, written in the way that some of the best sci-fi is, where it feels like a massive text that’s been erased down to the barest elements necessary for a perception imagination to piece together—a painting of overwhelming sentiment depicted with the simplest strokes possible. Oda’s script has been visualized with a similar restraint, nearly contained to Will’s home and its screens before it slowly pushes at these boundaries.
But, at first at least, Will’s hopefuls—including Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, David Rysdahl, Arianna Ortiz and a last-minute Zazie Beetz—are roped into routine. They start off as one-note ideas, some developing with nuance and others simply doubling down on their single traits: Laid-back humor, justice, curiosity. They’re like newborn characters trying to find their way out of a writer, souls striving for more than a core. Some make it further in the process; some are too boxed in by the strong singularity of their initial personalities.
With its single location and genre conceit, Nine Days could’ve easily felt like a closed-off and small series of acting exercises or thought experiments. The brief moments it strays into this territory are when we come to terms with Beetz’ character, who’s far more insightful compared to the rest of the new souls—though she sells the precociousness with aplomb. The script sometimes threatens to openly devolve into an ideological contest rather than a conversation, but the commitment of its underplaying cast—their interviews and tests woven together by editors Jeff Betancourt and Michael Taylor with a smoothness that propels us along the process—and the restraint of its script keeps its no-larger-than-life ideas from collapsing under their own weight.
Complicating these applications is Will’s personal connection to the person who left the vacancy behind in the first place. Will isn’t just watching the progress of his hires, but watching his children grow up from birth. A favorite is a violinist, with whom he hums along and takes special observational care; she’s the one whose death sets things in motion, and she hangs over Will throughout. It adds depth and shadow to Will’s otherwise strict and arms-length entity, enabling a greater empathy for the character and a greater performance from Duke. While Wong is honest and unfettered, Duke is a wall of corporate disaffection, with a capacity for love powerful enough to peek past his professional façade until it finally topples it over completely. The watchers and their workplace are decked in drab, olives and khakis, compared to the cool, low-fi phosphorescent glow of the countless TVs. It’s a palette of defensive, constructed apathy constantly colored in by the seductive emotions flashing by on the screens’ lives.
As the would-be humans continue to prove themselves through a series of psychological tests, their growth or stagnation metered out in compellingly restrained segments overseen by Duke’s stoic yet compassionate shepherd, we become as invested as Will in their prospects. The gravity of what they’re after hits us. The ultra-sincere Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze-esque premise (Jonze executive produced the film) moves beyond its high concept and starts digging into its emotional implications. Scene after scene of appreciation for the magical moments of life hammer our hearts. Rarely do movies so tenderly tenderize you. It can be shatteringly bittersweet even without the soaring strings of Antonio Pinto’s score, and when they come in, it’s not even fair.
Oda accomplishes these bigger moves through a few stellar scene transitions—a sharp and volatile turn to handheld; brilliant environmental shifts that deconstruct filmmaking as a medium—that create the magic Oda and cinematographer Wyatt Garfield otherwise only imply through the relative realism of the shooting style. These are the moments that grow out of its single-setting environment, replicating life for its souls in a direct analogy for filmmaking and theater’s ability to do the same. Mundanity gives way to art installation majesty, where you can still see the wires and blackout curtains but you’ve suspended everything but the impulse to be swept away.
In conversation with last year’s Soul—its allegory ostensibly grown up from youthful education to a job interview of ingenues, but still sharing a few of its philosophical imperfections—Nine Days’ interest in what makes life special doesn’t just write a love song to the everyday, it recites an entire poem devoted to it. Unabashedly, thrillingly earnest, Duke’s biggest moments in the film are his most impressive yet. You only realize how deeply he’s caught you in his thrall as he crescendos and you start leaning back—suddenly realizing that you’ve been elbows-on-knees invested in his quiet and obsessive caretaker. His ability to flip between extremes, of volume and realism and emotional openness, is as impressive as the love he conveys for life and those that live it.
Admirably ambitious and bracingly sincere, Nine Days leaves you raw and refreshed. Like the best sci-fi and moviemaking, tearing yourself away from it has an immediate effect on how you feel inside your reality. Its two hours—that zip by despite their heavy subject matter and emotional intensity—don’t throw back the curtain to reveal the wizard, but present the idea of a wizard as far less important than the majesty and construction of the drapery itself. It also mounts a rare defense of vicariousness, exploring how deeply empathetic and cathartic it can be to invest in others—as long as we never neglect ourselves. Nine Days marks Oda as one of our most exciting new directors, a filmmaker possessing an innovative cinematic mind with a heart to match.
Director: Edson Oda
Writers: Edson Oda
Stars: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, David Rysdahl, Arianna Ortiz
Release Date: July 30, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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