NINE DAYS – Review
In the Sundance hit NINE DAYS, a serious, melancholy man interviews candidates in a nine-day process to pick one to be born, in a supernatural drama. NINE DAYS takes a different, more existential approach to a concept that has long fascinated Hollywood, movies about reincarnation, rebirth and other worldly characters watching over people on earth. NINE DAYS leaves any theological or philosophical interpretation of who, what or where these characters are up to the audience, only providing some basic information, and focuses on questions of humanity and life itself, an exploration it grounds in a real-world, contemporary situation, as candidates are put though an extended job interview in which souls are put through a series of tests to determine who gets to be born.
Will’s (Winston Duke) job is to keep an eye on a group of people on Earth. He lives alone in a little house that is isolated in a desert-like expanse, and spends his days watching old-fashioned TVs with POV feeds of these people’s lives. Serious, reserved and slightly sad, Will meticulously takes notes on what he sees, makes VHS tapes of parts of their lives, and carefully files those tapes and notes in folders in steel filing cabinets. The buttoned-down Will has a frequent visitor, chatty Kyo (Benedict Wong), whose friendly demeanor contrasts starkly with Will’s quiet reserve. Kyo shows up with supplies and a request to watch Will’s TVs. They chat about the people on the TVs like they are characters in TV shows they enjoy, particularly anticipating upcoming highlights like one woman’s wedding and another’s concert, which they watch together.
When one of Will’s charges, a favorite named Amanda, suddenly dies in an auto accident, it hits him hard. It also creates an opening in Will’s charges, which he must fill with a new soul. Will gets to work quickly, selecting seven candidates, newly-born souls, to fill the slot.
This is writer/director Edson Oda’s first feature film and it is an impressive debut. The intriguing premise and the characters draw you in immediately, and Oda presents these diverse personalities in a kaleidoscope fashion framed by the interviews and Will’s discussions with Kyo. The Japanese Brazilian writer/director uses the extended job interview premise as a way for people to connect with the story and get to know the characters. The primary focus of the film is on the characters, especially Will, exploring human dreams and human differences, with gentle, indirect reflections on life and human nature in all its form.
Will selects seven candidates to interview and test over a maximum of nine days, new-born souls whose existence will end shortly if they are eliminated from consideration. Each is told he/she will be born into a loving family and a comfortable life, so these are prime life assignments. We later learn that others are doing work similar to Will’s, making their own selections from pool of souls, like picking from a group of job applicants.
The seven candidates, Emma (Zazie Beetz), Kane (Bill Skarsgård), Alexander (Tony Hale), Maria (Arianna Ortiz), Mike (David Rysdahl), Anne (Perry Smith) and Colleen (Geraldine Hughes), are a wide range of personalities, which director Oda uses as a kind of snap shot of humanity. The mix and their differing reactions are fascinating, as is how Will responses, while maintaining his poker-face demeanor.
Most of the invited candidates are on time but one, Emma (Zazie Beetz), shows up much later. Will does not even want to talk to her, but Kyo lets her in, forcing Will to consider her. She is so unique, always inquisitive and with an independent streak, that he adds her to his list anyway.
One of the few things we learn about Will is that he was once alive, a requirement for his job. Kyo, we learn, has never been alive but is Will’s supervisor, overseeing his work and advising occasionally but the decision is ultimately Will’s. The candidates, the souls, are a variety of types and most, but not all, present as younger adults.
The candidates are winnowed down over the nine days, though a series of tests and assignments. One big assignment is to watch the POV feeds of other lives and take notes, and share thoughts with Will. The candidates do not interact with each other, just Will and sometimes Kyo, until very late in the film. Will does not share with any of them what he is looking for, telling them only “there are no right or wrong answers” in the manner of psychologist, But his conversations with Kyo reveals he is looking for a certain resilience to face life and also perhaps uniqueness.
Will’s own existence is very circumscribed, limited to his house and the immediate surroundings. It is a comfortable little house with a sort-of 40s decor and a little white picket fenced yard, but it is isolated, with no other buildings in sight on the flat desert-like landscape. People walk to the house from unseen locations. The house seems to act like a protective shell for Will, as does his reserved demeanor and rigid routines, and there is a sense of mystery and melancholy around him. We learn little of Will’s previous life but the quizzical, curious Emma challenges and upends Will’s well-worn pattern, forcing him to reflect on his life and reveal a bit.
Oda draws on observations of life and humanity for his innovative, involving film, He edits it masterfully, cutting from candidate to candidate as Will goes through his interview questions and challenges, which gives us a glimpse of each person’s reaction to the problem. Some characters we get to know better than others, as the group is narrowed every day. As candidates are winnowed down, some just disappear but for others, we get to see a final experience drawn from what they have watched of life, a kindness provided by Will. These final thoughtful gestures reveal a deep sensitivity beneath Will’s reserved, formal manner.
Some are eliminated quickly, and we don’t really get to know them much. But Will offers each a chance to experience a little of the life they have observed on the POV feeds but will not have, a kindness that other interviewers don’t offer. We witness a few of those, some of the drama’s most poignant moments.
The acting is impressive to say the least, particularly Winston Duke as Will, but extending to all the cast. Duke slowly peels back layers of the closed-in Will, showing us hints of the reason for the pain and sadness we sense beneath his rigid veneer. Benedict Wong provides the perfect foil for Will’s reserve but it is the questioning Emma who really cracks his glassy surface.
While the whole story takes place in various rooms of Will’s house and the surrounding barren but bracing landscape, the film is opened up by beautiful, sweeping photography by cinematographer Wyatt Garfield which creates the perfect setting for Oda’s thoughtful, involving drama.
NINE DAYS offers an intriguing premise to explore human life, featuring impressive acting performance, skillful direction and striking photography, all woven into an affecting, thought provoking drama, in an impressive directorial debut. If you like good drama, good acting, and are intrigued by how differently people see the same thing, this excellent film should be on your list of ones to see.
NINE DAYS opens Friday, August 6, at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinema and other theaters.
RATING: 3.5 out of 4 stars