Director/writer Edson Oda’s feature debut Nine Days sounds like the type of film that may take big, bold stylish swings in order to sell its highly original concept. Luckily for the viewers, his approach is more understated and contemplative, focusing on the human condition over building a world where all the answers are provided. The result is a thoughtfully crafted and deeply cathartic cinematic experience.
The story occurs over the course of nine days, a small group of souls are given the opportunity to be reborn in the form of a newborn baby. As one person’s time on earth closes, a new opportunity for life opens. Over this nine day period the souls are subjected to a series of hypothetical moral quandaries by Will (Winston Duke). He is the in interviewer who uses their answers to weed out the unworthy candidates. The souls deemed unworthy are erased from existence while the last remaining and deserving soul is selected to start the new life.
The film is a layered mediation on the fragments of existence that make up a lifetime. Oda delivers a moving and spiritual jaunt that has been stuck in my head ever since. There is a sense of wonder that is accomplished by tackling complex themes and handling them in a simpler fashion. There is a feel of mystery as we piece together just what we’re seeing, but never does it feel as if it’s trying to outwit the audience. Ideas are given space to bloom naturally without overloading us with excessive rules and complexities. What Will’s role is something that becomes clearer as the film goes along, but still is never fully explained nor does it really matter.
What matters here is the unfolding journey of the souls, Will included. We watch the candidates (played by Arianna Ortiz, Tony Hale, David Rysdahl, Zazie Beetz, and Bill Skarsgård) spending their nine days being challenged by Will as he asks them how-would-you-handle-this-situation ethical/morality questions. (i.e. – like would you allow the death of a loved one if it would save many others? Would you?) They also spend a considerable amount of time sitting in front of the television taking notes about what they like or dislike. But it is not television shows they are watching, but rather first person perspectives of the lives of multiple people living on earth. Even when proposing the tough questions this is all a celebration of life.
The cast is stellar from top to bottom. Duke, who people know from films like Us and Black Panther, proves we have only begun to explore his talents. The giant of a man delivers a reserved performance that subtly lets on there’s more to the story below the surface. His only friend, Kyo (Benedict Wong) is just wonderful here as a never-been-born sidekick. Zazie Beetz shines – she is a pleasure to watch and provides much of the film’s unconditional heart. Anthony Hale, (who seems like moments away from a breakout, against character role) nails his conflicted soul character, Alexander.
The art direction adds an air of mystery. Wyatt Garfield’s cinematography has a dusty and muted tone look with touches of ethereal lighting. At times could almost feel the weight of the air in scenes. Based on what I have described so far, you may imagine an elaborate or fantastical version of the afterlife. Instead it all takes place inside a small, isolated, modest home in the desert. Everything feels lived in, familiar and tangible, yet oddly out of touch.
The televisions I mentioned are part of a wall of analog equipment that look to date back to the 80s – big tube televisions connected to outdated VCRs – one on top of the other. The notes taken by the souls and Will are handwritten on pen and paper or notepads – all filed away in antiquated filing cabinets. Is the afterlife out of date with its technology, or is management slacking? Not quite sure, but the subdued visual style is memorable and again keeps the focus on the human element. Thankfully, there are no distracting special effects here.
The film maintains a moody tone throughout, often leaning towards sadness that kept me invested in each note. The occasional addition of the strings that fill Antonio Pinto’s (City of God, Central Station – two must-see films) score resonate. In the opening moments of the film, you hear them and know the film is exposing its soul – melancholic with touches of sweetness. Oda’s script can be talky at times with stretches of existential discussions that I found captivating. At the same time there are spans nearly free of dialogue. The perfect time to break it down and digest it all. I must say, discovering about each of his characters is not a chore in the least.
I did say there are no special effects. Well, that was kind of a half truth. There are some very innovative lo-fi effects which I found simply incredible. To describe in detail would be cheating you out of experiencing them yourself. So, I will not spoil them here. I will say that Oda turns a bike ride into something unforgettable. It is perhaps my favorite moment in cinema this year. Truly magical.
To take on such an ambitious film for a first time director is really impressive; especially his ability to strike to the core of human emotions, while producing a film that is touching but not cloying. The messages are universal yet open to interpretation. My take away, and I am sure others will have theirs is that the beauty of life lies in the simplicity of the often mundane moments that compile it. From holding a hand to sharing a laugh. Appreciate them. As a father and husband it all hit deep and had me near tears numerous times.
While touching upon the theoretical, it also doesn’t overplay its hand. Oda keeps the edges fuzzy so, like life, it is not defined. The purposeful omission of the answers works wonders – the whens wheres and whys are all not answered. Instead that is where your personal life experiences will apply to create an emotional trip that reverberates long after viewing. Add seeing Nine Lives to that list.