AFI Fest: Nine Days Review

Without giving too much away about the film or sounding like I am hyping up the film too much, I believe that Edson Oda’s directorial debut is better than most other films I’ve seen in recent years and is the most original film I’ve seen in years. Most films are driven by a central plot, good and evil forces, usually resolved or wrapped up by the film’s end. Nine Days isn’t concerned about any of that, instead opting to focus on the characters themselves. That may sound like what is usually referred to as a “character study,” but it goes so much deeper than that – Oda provides us a look into who that person is, their reactions to others’ behavior, and all the choices that make up the soul.

Not content to stop there, Oda provides this tactile feeling to everything we see – even if only to give our brains an easy way to process everything we’re seeing. I felt the sand in my toes, the air against my hand, the glow of a television. In this effort, Edson Oda offers a conversation about how the soul is borne into this world, the hefty responsibility of using our time on Earth for good, and what ideas surround death or suicide.

While Nine Days doesn’t take place on any earth that we know, opting for a remote desert between life and death. Think of it as purgatory, a place of judgment, except no one there is alive or dead. Instead, think of it as a sort of limbo that unborn souls have nine days to audition for life. In those days, these souls spend most of their time wandering around this barren limbo.

Will (Winston Duke) lives in one of the few homes in this space, although it’s more of working existence. He “interviews” the unborn souls for those nine days and monitors their ensuing lives on a wall of CRT TVs. Each of these people was previously chosen by Will many years ago. When one of the souls dies, he is tasked with interviewing the next soul to be born.

How will decides the soul that will be born is of the utmost importance, as each soul reacts differently to the joys and sorrows of being alive. This truth outside the film and into the real world. The more you look at the philosophy inside the film, the better experience you will have.

As a result, the film asks you to contextualize it within your own life. You could look at life with an angry eye as Will does. Maybe your religious beliefs factor into how you go about life. That’s undoubtedly discussed within the film’s narrative. These numerous souls competing against another for the chance to be alive exist on a broad spectrum of philosophies, from the free-spirited (Zazie Beetz) to the logic-based (Bill Skarsgard). Some exist to crack open a beer (Tony Hale, who balances out the grave subject matter with his usual humourous bits) after a long day and those who lead a tortured existence (David Rysdahl).

Many scholars argue that we are born into the world. Edson Oda offers an alternative view, implying that maybe there’s something that comes before birth. Perhaps we are interviewed by someone like Will with a series of hypotheticals to answer, like an exam, but the pass/fail grade is left entirely up to the person testing your soul. In the meta-narrative of this film, we see Will take his applications through this exam, something he calls an “Existence Aptitude Test” that starts as an innocent series of hypotheticals but rapidly introduces his own bias into the exams that leads to slighting those that we as an audience will connect to the most.

That moral center, if you want to call it, that is Zazie Beetz’ Emma. She’s never been on Earth, but out of all of the applicants, she has what would commonly be reffered to as a “positive look on life”. Will pushes against that positivity and puts the two at odds. When she begins to challenge Will’s methodology, Will sits Emma in front of the wall of TVs and asks her to write down everything she likes about what she is seeing – filling the entire notebook with thousands of little things she enjoyed. During all of these trials, Emma uses everything she learns and applies to Will, studying him when he’s not looking.

While much of Nine Days centers on these trials these souls are enduring, that’s not what this film is trying to discuss. It’s trying to discuss what happens to a soul when a soul becomes numb. With Emma, Will gets the chance to spark an optimisim that Will has lost over the years of interviewing souls. She is the purest of souls, putting others’ needs before hers. 

I still can’t believe that this Edson Oda’s first feature film. There is an attention to detail to every part of Nine Days, whether it’s one side of a frame being blue and another being yellow to signify a sunrise & sunset, the production design of Will’s house, featuring a theater that performs last wishes for the souls who were denied the opportunity of life or the wall of TVs that all have an individual video stream (which likely took a massive editing bay to make each TV have relevant information), and the violin-led score helps to create this crafted reality. 

Nine Days is not a film to be missed, especially if you love movies about philosophy. 

Trailer courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Nine Days is releasing in early 2021. Reviewed as part of the 34th Annual AFI Fest.