Nine Days Thrives on Creative Existentialism

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In 2019, declared “existential” to be their Word of the Year with the rationale of “it captures a sense of grappling with the survival — literally and figuratively — of our planet, our loved ones, our ways of life.” There may be no more heady or heavier term within the human condition. As a creative form of art, movies big and small have long wrestled with presenting existentialist themes. One of the most inventive and intriguing movies you may ever see muster that courage and affinity is Edson Oda’s Nine Days from Sony Pictures Classics.

Putting Pixar to shame with physical people and settings over animated whimsy, Nine Days creates a morose working world of how unborn souls are selected to become newborn lives. Indomitable Black Panther and Us star Winston Duke is Will, a solitary arbiter and record-keeper of the dozen or so people in his given caseload. Like a couched centurion and often flanked by his chummy workmate Kyo, played by a wonderfully affable Benedict Wong, he dutifully watches a stacked wall of old tube TVs displaying the feeds of their ongoing lives broadcast through their eyes and cataloged on VHS tapes.

Will listens to an interviewee from behind his desk.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

When one of his personal favorites, a prodigy-level violinist named Amanda, suddenly dies, Will and his professional composure are shaken. The loss weighs on him as he is tasked to find her replacement. Will has lived before and now interviews new candidates in a rigorous and scrupulous nine-day elimination interview process of moral challenges and comparative hypothetical scenarios. Each aspirant brings a different measure of unformed impulses and are, likewise, played by a dynamic range of ensemble performers including Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz, It star Bill Skarsgard, comedian Tony Hale, and TV actresses Arianna Ortiz and Perry Smith. 

Only one potential soul can earn the position while the others forever lose their chances to exist, creating stakes that lock viewers into this escalating and ultimately life-affirming decision. Rich in symbolism and radiating spiritual energy in every intersecting personality, Nine Days is a multi-sided polygon of observational angles paired, often in conflict, with their tragic and emotional by-products.

Will lifts his glasses to his face in the salty plain.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Will occupies an administrative post where all he can do is watch. There is a commitment he places on this duty, yet he is helpless to the free will of his charges or how the world treats them. Though he may wish it deep down, Will can never be a true caretaker or guardian angel of sorts. He never says such and is resigned to the fate of possessing zero control after final selection, but the distance is aching and the worry is genuine.

The second is evaluation versus judgment. By all accounts, Will is very good at his job and is very principled to be an objective interviewer. He speaks little of himself in mostly one-sided examinations. You have small hints of what is seen or valued by his measuring assessment. This identification of potential talent and heart is meant to be a learning process for the souls and their future implications. However, Will’s own jaded and strict sense of personal success and failure for both his prior human life and current enduring work appear to skew this newest round of recruitment. That typifies the battle between ongoing evaluation for growth and a selective judgment of permanent consequences. 

Will and Emma look towards the clouded horizin
Photo courtesy of The Sundance Institute

Larger than that, watching Nine Days begs that looming and overarching question of what makes a soul worthy. You, the viewer, gain rapt attention and investment in these interviews. You, knowingly or unknowingly, are keeping your own scorecard on each prospect, same as Will. 

Moreover, if Nine Days is really hitting your sensitivity meter, you will pause often in thought to question your own worth. Imagine the chronicled tape of your life’s achievements and defeats were played out on one of those TVs for someone to watch. Likewise, picture yourself sitting in those same seats across from Will’s bespectacled and sweatered presence. That is a hell of a punch to the conscience. 

Both the arduous selection process coordinated by Will and the watchful documentation of a complete human life that follows carries an ominous gravity of reflection. What kind of world is Will sending souls to? Was his selection justified? How do those precious lives turn out? For every rewarded moment of happiness that tallies as a point of pride of a job well done, there is immense amount of second-guessing and grave regret when failure and loss beset those Will has chosen and subsequently grown attached to. 

Kyo looks towards his friend wearing a satchel.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Filmed under bright skies on Utah’s rugged plains, Edson Oda and his collaborators crafted an intimate sweep for those floating archetypes to work within. Cinematographer Wyatt Garfield (Beatriz at Dinner) merges the wide and natural vistas with hermetic and idyllic functionality of the designed interiors of Dan Hermansen (Superman & Lois) that both enclose and release the potential wonder being brokered by the narrative. The strings of Antonio Pinto’s (City of God) melodic score meld that sense of scope with soft poignancy. The movie is completely lovely. 

The creative expression of all this in Nine Days is as thoughtful and purposeful as its themes. Edson Oda, in his directorial debut, won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and the award was greatly deserved for this film’s staggering and daring imagination. The movie is a proverbial actor’s showcase with no one rising higher than Winston Duke. In wearing his character’s mounting difficulty with palpable strain that breaks down a rugged presence of authority, the Tobagonian actor is absolutely masterful and crescendos with a poetic monologue for the ages. 

His award-worthy intensity is bolstered by the nuances of the supporting cast. Benedict Wong is a welcome, cheeky foil stepping forward as a voice for sympathy, reason, and the lust for life, even as a character that has never tasted it. Among the interviewees, each playing their custom-formulated ranges of empathy and overall human potential. Zazie Beetz and Bill Skarsgard stand out sharply. 

Hallmarks like those highlighted above in Nine Days are merely scratching the abstract and ethereal surface. The possible branched and multiplied interpretations, unanchored to any specific religion or philosophy, are innumerable. So few films hit true existentialism this strongly. Nine Days is an intellectual treasure that moves your heart and mind greater than some many other things you can watch and absorb from a couch or theater seat. With brevity and profundity wholly rooted in the preciousness of life, Nine Days leaves its mark as one of the best films of 2021. Discover this unique and crushingly beautiful gem immediately.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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