When we first meet Will in his spectacled and suspendered glory, he is sitting alone in a house in the middle of the desert, watching numerous television sets. He doesn’t say much at first, just recording and taking notes on what seems to be people’s everyday lives. The scene should feel boring and mundane but in writer/director Edson Oda’s hands, Nine Days’ opening scene feels mesmerizing.
We come to find out Will (Winston Duke) is a higher being tasked with picking the next person to be born. He gives them temporary names and guides them through a series of real-world scenarios that will eventually get him to the right candidate in nine days’ time. While he tells the likes of Bill Skargård’s Kane and Tony Hale’s Alexander that there are no wrong answers, there clearly are standards Will is forming in his own mind, set by a previous soul. It’s Zazie Beetz’s brilliant portrayal of Emma thats test his ability to carry out his mission, making him question his own purpose. While the concept is deeply rooted in the sci-fi genre, Nine Days feels like a moving character study entrenched in the sights and sounds of what makes life worthwhile.
The first feature effort from Japanese-Brazilian Oda was incubated in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and was welcomed at the 2020 pre-COVID version of the festival. It’s easy to see why. Oda’s script is very tight and his direction allows scenes to breathe and bask in very specific visuals and sounds. The pacing will feel slow to some, but the philosophical momentum built from Oda’s careful direction gently guides you from scene to scene. He takes advantage of both the vast Salt Plains shooting location and the more winding and cluttered cabin. While it’s hard not to stare and be moved by such a stark landscape, Will’s home feels more like the backstage area of a theater, complete with a carpenter shop and prop room. It’s a testament that everything we see from Oda is well -thought out and calculated.
This includes casting. Nine Days has one of the most cohesive ensembles we’ve seen in years. Duke’s performance is masterful, capturing Will’s idiosyncrasies and bringing a human quality to a god-like line manager. Benedict Wong plays Kyo, a old spirit stuck in purgatory that was never born and helps make soul-decisions on occasion. He serves as both comic relief and the role of the annoying neighbor kid from next door that tags along all the time. It’s that wise naivety Wong captures that earned him an Independent Spirit nomination last year.
Eventually, Will narrows it down to two possible contestants, one slightly too sensitive and curious and one pragmatic and logical. Each of the “lost” souls gets to live one life experience, such as walking on the beach or riding a bike, before they fade away. As Oda makes us question what it takes to survive in this world, he reminds us that life is only worth living through our experiences with others. It’s powerful filmmaking from a first-timer.
You can watch Nine Days now in New York and Los Angeles theaters. Opens up nationwide August 6th. Watch the trailer below and find our interviews with the cast here.