It has been a very long time since I have watched a film as philosophically satisfying and devastatingly powerful as Nine Days. Winston Duke’s soothing voice and passionate line-delivery (as an omniscient being named Will) is just perfect casting, and that is before even delving into the excellent ensemble. The easiest way for me to describe the energy and emotional connection flowing through Nine Days is to recall its animated equivalent: Disney/Pixar’s 2020 masterpiece, Soul.
Will (Winston Duke) spends most of his time watching retro television sets that display people going about their normal lives. A sudden death results in a vacancy, a dead noise on one of the foggy TVs. Now, Will must conduct interviews with a series of people for the possibility of life. As they each come into his home, he takes a polaroid and assigns them a name. “You are being considered for the amazing opportunity of life,” he tells each of them. “If after this process you are selected, you will have the chance to be born in a fruitful environment where you can grow, develop, and accomplish. Would you like to be considered for this position?”
Each of the interviewees will undergo an approximately nine day (or less) process, depending on their success in each task. The outward appearance of each of these souls include vastly different ages, races and personalities. However, each has only been in existence for a few hours, or days, as the experience progresses. Will tasks them with spending time to observe all of the people he has previously selected for life on the TV screens. If they do not make it to the end, each soul goes to this film’s equivalent of the Great Beyond.
The moment they hear “I have to tell you that you don’t fit the vacancy you were applying for,” it is over. The sequences where each character meets their fate has a beautiful tinge and weird visuals: If they don’t make it on the journey to life, Will allows each soul to pick a moment truly meaningful on the TVs, and he will use it to create an “experience” for death. These sequences and recreated moments are stunning in their quiet delivery. One character loves the beach and another a simple bike ride. They go out with a bang. A haunting humming of “You are My Sunshine” tightens its grip around your heart. It makes one appreciate life’s littlest moments, another element that strongly reminded me of Soul. I wanted to download the soundtrack for this immediately after I watched it.
The selection angle, making this almost a competition, keeps things electrically charged at all times. The clashing personalities amongst the ‘contestants’ means the drama slowly bubbles up. Zany comedian Tony Hale, who I loved as Buster on Arrested Development, leaves an imprint as Alexander, a feisty weirdo who laughs at everything. During their introduction, Kane is transfixed to the one screen with no activity, the vacancy he is aiming to fill. Bill’s Kane taps the glass with a naive wildness to his swagger. Two of the front runners have different definitions of the word disgusting: the shy and quirky Emma (Zazie Beetz)’s involves poop, while the curious and passionate Kane (Bill Skarsgard)’s involves rape and murder.
Emma shows up later than everyone else. She wants her name to be something particular but then ultimately lands on Emma anyway. She is extremely inquisitive, and Beetz is exceedingly great in the role. There is dark edge to every character; each of the different tasks involve a question of morals. A theoretical situation regarding a prisoner of a concentration camp ripples with meaning: “If you don’t pull this chair, not only will I kill your son, I’ll kill everyone else here.” There is a logic to every decision that Will makes. He justifies it all as he eliminates each person and makes the ultimate call for who is most qualified to fill the position.
Nine Days raises existential questions about what choices one would make in certain situations. What makes us human? I needed a second viewing to comprehend some of the complexities of the plot. I am happy to report that it only strengthens the twisty narrative and the distinct performances of the interviewees. Winston Duke’s second absolutely killer performance in a row, after Jordan Peele’s Us, is dynamic and ferocious. In a film exploding with phenomenal character acting, his emerges as the most powerful. An epic moment with the beautiful Walt Whitman poem “Song of Myself” seals the package of this perfect 2021 masterpiece.
Nine Days has a vacancy on July 30th; exclusively in New York and Los Angeles, and wide release on August 6th.
Check out our interview with writer/director Edson Oda.