A man sits at an antique desk with a clipboard and poses you this scenario: you’re a prisoner of war and your son just tried to escape, and all that stands between him and a hanging is a chair. If you do not kick the chair out from under him, your son, you, and all the other prisoners will be killed. Do you kick the chair? It’s the heaviest question I’ve ever heard in a job interview, but we are dealing with life and not-life in Nine Days, the feature debut from Edson Oda. This is a film that requires total openness in its audience – to be comfortable accessing the more difficult emotions without fear of being caught weeping with joy (and sadness) in the darkness of a cinema. The reward for doing so is one of the more life-affirming experiences you can have in a two hour window.
The man who asks such questions is Will (Winston Duke), the inhabitant of a standalone house in what appears to be a salt lake on the corner of nowhere and (perhaps) purgatory. He is joined by his supervisor Kyo (Benedict Wong, in one of the few roles that allows him to display his glorious Manchester accent) who will corroborate his choice of candidate after the nine days are up. Candidate for what, you ask? Life, silly – didn’t you see Pixar’s Soul? Little is known about these two at first, other than that Kyo thinks himself hilarious and Will was once alive. Will watches a wall of old school TV screens which broadcast the lives of the souls he’s picked in the past. Kyo comes over to watch milestones, like the upcoming concerto of Will’s prodigy pick Amanda.
A nasty surprise cuts their viewing short as violin virtuoso Amanda ends her life on the morning of her big performance. Her screen cuts to a colour bar, and Will stands in disbelief at the sudden end to his biggest success story. Rewinding on repeat the days leading up to her suicide, Will tries to understand where he went wrong in his selection, and why someone as gifted as Amanda would do such a thing. It is the question director Oda kept asking himself after losing his uncle to suicide, and it makes this story a personal one. While mourning, Will must also come to terms with the fact that he has to select a replacement to fill this new vacancy.
Enter Mike – the tortured artist (David Rysdahl), Maria – the romantic (Arianna Ortiz), Alexander – the idiot (Tony Hale), Kane – the pragmatist (Bill Skarsgard) and Emma – the eternal optimist (Zazie Beetz.) Like a precursor to Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life, the candidates instead have to watch videos from other people’s lives and take notes, answer surveys about what they would do in the same situations, and hope that they get picked for the vacancy (and the chance at life on Earth.) One by one, Will must whittle down the selection to the most appropriate candidate, and hope that he doesn’t make the same ‘mistake’ he made with Amanda.
Nine Days reminds me of the equally high-concept (and criminally short lived) series The Booth at the End where Xander Berkley takes the role of possible deity/man-who-makes-things-happen-somehow. But where The Man is impartial to his ‘clients’, Will has very human biases that creep into his decisions – fragments of himself from the life he lived on Earth that he feels were signs of weakness, and that he wishes to weed out in his selection. His immediate frustration with Emma (Beetz) and her straying-from-the-path approach as an interviewee, directly contradicts the opinion of supervisor Kyo, who believes Emma is the obvious choice. She is different from the others – more inquisitive, more considerate. Will sees this as defiance for the sake of defiance, and does his best not to be swayed by her charms.
Emma, her childlike optimism on full display, questions everything and Will, like a tired parent, does not appreciate her ‘why’s. She refuses to answer his questions without more context, and actively goes out of her way to find out more about the people she’s with. Kyo, having never lived a human life on Earth and therefore without the hangups of regret, answers her questions freely. Will, on the other hand, feels intruded upon and reminded of his perceived failures in life. His unwillingness to open up and feel again has been festering for quite some time, but the death of his star pupil has ensured the walls are firmly in place. Nine Days is as much about Will learning to ‘be’ as it is about his candidates, and it makes him a really wonderful character with which to identify.
The cinematography and production design shine brightest in the scenes set in Will’s makeshift soundstage, a beautifully creative construct that made my sinuses hurt from suppressing my eye water. As an ASMR enthusiast I found this film excellent at demonstrating the reason for my appreciation. We take for granted the satisfying crunch of sand beneath our toes and the breeze in our face while riding a bike (a scene lifted from one of Oda’s excellent short films.) But when a candidate does not make it to the next day and Will grants them an experience that they’ve seen in the lives of others (and would like to have for themselves before fading away to nothingness), it’s always a simple, sensory moment accompanied by headphones. Creating these immersions for someone else, even for a few minutes, is the glimmer of human empathy we see in Will that separates him from all the other interviewers that exist in this realm. For as Kyo points out when asked by Emma, no one else does this for their non-picks.
I cannot fault anyone involved with this splendid debut. Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz in particular must be singled out for their terrific and moving performances (one such theatrical exchange featuring just the two of them in the desert is now locked safely in my brain for when I need reminding that there is a reason to try) and the smaller characters are written and brought to life with just as much effort. There is so much heart to this film and it’s incredibly encouraging that Oda, a man whose previous work was in advertising and music videos, was given the opportunity to put a story both so personal and universal to screen.
And to the numpties who sat in front of me and had the audacity to rave about Marvel, only to then surmise that this film wouldn’t find its audience in cinemas – you are what is wrong with the world. I hope that your pessimism proves incorrect, and I hope that others do make the effort to see Nine Days in theatres because it’s the closest I’ve gotten recently to feeling like everything will be okay. 8.5/10