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Photo: ‘Nine Days’
A reclusive man is visited by a series of wandering souls which he must guide through a series of arbitrary tests to judge whether they deserve the chance to be born. That is the remarkably dense one-sentence logline of Edson Oda’s mesmerizing debut feature; ‘Nine Days’ (2021). Very few films in recent memory have so readily embraced such a daunting high-concept premise and seen it through to its maximum potential (save an obviously animated romp that dominated Christmas of last year).
While, yes, Pixar’s ‘Soul’ (2020) may seem the unmistakable elephant in the room, Oda’s latest actually premiered 11 months before Pete Docter’s , on January 27th of 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival. Over a year and a half later, Oda’s dazzling freshman directorial effort has finally made its way to theaters around the country, wowing audiences with its unabashed surrealist vision. Featuring a host of affecting performances from some of the best and brightest names on Hollywood’s B-list and a nimble script that effortlessly ebbs and flows with its characters, ‘Nine Days’ proves itself one of the best films of the year (or last year?) and a rewarding contemplation of the purpose of personhood and the hidden beauty of life’s little moments.
An Odd But Affecting Set-Up That Leads to a Near-Perfect Payoff
Star of ‘Black Panther’ (2018) and ‘Us’ (2019) Winston Duke serves as the aforementioned shepherd of hopeful spirits, a man named Will who once lived a promising life on Earth but ultimately succumbed to his own insecurities. He now serves as a watchful arbiter, monitoring every moment in the lives of the past souls he has chosen to be born through a wall of antique television sets, storing their memories in an expansive bookmarked catalog of VHS tapes. His only companion is Kyo, marvelously portrayed by ‘Doctor Strange’ (2016) actor Benedict Wong, a soul who did not disappear after not being selected and instead lingers on as Will’s passionate assistant.
While he has no sway over his soul’s decisions, Will still chooses to record the minute details of their existence in an attempt to understand their purpose and ensure that he made the right choices, taking special interest in a 28-year old violin prodigy named Amanda. On the way to perform in the biggest Concierto of her career, Amanda abruptly careens off of the road and dies in a car accident. Crestfallen, Will loses the little faith he had left in humanity and falls into a despondent stupor right as a new batch of prospective beings arrive at his doorstep in the hopes of being selected to fill Amanda’s vacancy. Will must widdle down the contestants through a series of moral tests and intense interviews taking place over the course of nine days. For each soul that is not chosen, Will and Kyo attempt to recreate one particular moment of life on Earth for them before they fade into oblivion – be it a trip to the beach or ride on a bike.
Throughout the process, two souls stand out to him; ‘Joker’ (2019) actress Zazie Beetz’ inquisitive and carefree Emma and ‘It’ (2017) star Bill Skarsgård’s detached and pragmatic Kane. Emma grows close to Will over the nine days despite his best efforts to keep her at arm’s length, little by little unraveling his own tragic history on Earth and fostering an emotional understanding as to why he became the way that he is. At the end of their tenure with him, Will must ultimately choose between the two – one representing hope for the future and the other acceptance of the present – a poignant reflection of the duality of life on Earth that culminates in a spectacular final five minutes collating all of the films latent quandaries and deepest themes together in a truly unforgettable way.
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‘Nine Days’ – A Fantastic Cast Help Ground the Fantastical Premise
‘Nine Days’ serves as a much-needed showcase for some of the most underrated talents working today, affording each member of its ensemble the necessary space and freedom to perform in refreshingly new ways. Duke is fantastic as Will, expertly utilizing the opportunity to steward a film as a bonafide leading man in a performance sure to satisfy anyone desperate for more after a series of strong supporting roles in the past. His final monologue is easily the film’s highest height, thanks in large part to Duke’s impeccable delivery and unrestrained howls of joy. Beetz is additionally fantastic, capturing a certain child-like wonder and infallible optimism that immediately endears her from the moment she arrives at Will’s desolate shack. Wong is another welcome addition to the film, escaping the shadow of the MCU and remaining one of ‘Nine Days’ most lighthearted heroes.
As for the rest of the souls that visit Will, Skarsgård is certainly serviceable (albeit mostly muted throughout), but the clear standout not previously mentioned is none other than Buster Bluth himself, Tony Hale. The star of satirical juggernauts like ‘Arrested Development’ (2003-2019) and ‘Veep’ (2012-2019), Hale has scarcely ventured beyond the realm of comedy during his career. ‘Nine Days’ offers the actor the chance to demonstrate his ability to personify more than just an aloof man-child or sheepish bag-boy, expertly balancing a rye wit with a frightened dread in a heartbreaking acting display sure to turn many heads in the industry.
A Life-Affirming Experience Well Worth a Trip to the Movie Theater
As the credits begin to roll, a complete portrait of all that ‘Nine Days’ hopes to inspire begins to dawn in the back of viewers’ minds. There are certainly occasional elements that fall flat or stand out as surprisingly surface level in a film that thrives on subtext, but audience members who decide to buy into the film from the beginning will find these strange moments little more than welcome eccentricities and peculiar puzzle pieces in the overall tapestry the film seeks to create. ‘Nine Days’ aptly encapsulates the age-old saying “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”, perfectly personified by the lingering twang of melancholic reassurance sure to reside in one’s stomach as they slowly shuffle their way down the aisle towards the lives they have waiting for them on the other side of the exit sign, appreciating every last step that they take along the way.
Cast: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Bill Skarsgård, Tony Hale, David Rysdahl, Arianna Ortiz, Geraldine Hughes, Erika Vasquez, Perry Smith
Cinematographer: Wyatt Garfield | Editor: Michael Taylor, Jeff Betancourt | Score: Antonio Pinto
Director: Edson Oda | Writer: Edson Oda | Producers: Jason Michael Berman, Mette-Marie Kongsved, Matthew Linder, Laura Tunstall, Datari Turner, Spike Jonze, Winston Duke
By Andrew Valianti
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Andrew Valianti is a writer and an aspiring producer-director, and all-around film lover. While writing both features and reviews for the Hollywood Insider, Andrew has focused on the intersection of cinema and politics as they relate to empowering diverse stories and viewpoints. Through both study and practice, Andrew has seen first hand the many ways in which film and media can have a positive and meaningful impact on everyday lives. His personal views align with the Hollywood Insider, as he views journalism as a means to empower and mobilize positive change rather than spread gossip or negativity. He believes that art ignites action and has sought to pursue stories that further this goal.