A winner at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, this beautifully evocative existential drama follows unborn souls vying for a chance to live.
Androids may dream of electric sheep, or they may not, but that isn't the only metaphysical question that cinema likes to contemplate. Do souls yearn and strive for — and fret and stress over — their chance to shuffle onto this mortal coil? That's the query that Pixar's Soul pondered so thoughtfully and enchantingly, and it's one that Nine Days, which actually predates its animated counterpart but is only reaching Australian cinemas now, masterfully explores as well. "You are being considered for the amazing opportunity of life," a bespectacled, suspender-wearing, serious-faced Will (Winston Duke, Us) tells the candidates hoping to soon live and breathe. They're far more enthusiastic about the process than he is, although he values their prospective existence much more than they can fathom in their wide-eyed eagerness and excitement. Will has seen what can happen next, because it's his job not only to select the best souls to embark upon this thing called life, but to monitor their progress in all the days, months and years afterwards. He's observed the success stories; however, he's also witnessed the heartbreaks as well.
In this stirring and fittingly soulful debut feature from writer/director Edson Oda — a movie that won the dramatic screenwriting award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival — Will surveys his next troupe of contenders fresh from viewing the unhappy end that met one of his previous favourites. He's already adrift from existence as we know it, and from almost everyone else who resides in the picture's ethereal yet also earthy pre-life realm, but he's now burdened with a renewed sense of solemnity. His colleague Kyo (Benedict Wong, The Personal History of David Copperfield) tries to get him to see the lighter side — the more human side — of the path his next chosen candidate will take. He emphasises the ebbs and flows that Will, who has become more rigid in his thinking and feelings the longer he's in the role, now fervently discounts. But among a roster of new applicants that includes Kane (Bill Skarsgård, IT Chapter Two), Alex (Tony Hale, Veep), Mike (David Rysdahl, Dead Pigs) and Maria (Arianna Ortiz, Rattlesnake), all of which are given nine days to demonstrate why they should be born next, it's actually the calm, passionate and inquisitive Emma (Zazie Beetz, Atlanta) that challenges the way Will perceives his work and what it means to be alive.
Nine Days could've been reductive and generic. Perhaps, statistically, it should've turned out that way. Tales of men who learn what's important in their limited period of consciousness via their interactions with spirited women are far too common — and not just on the big screen, but everywhere that tales are told. Many of Nine Days' other elements echo from other films and stories, too, strongly recalling Hirokazu Kore-eda's 1998 film After Life, bringing The Truman Show to mind in Will's voyeurism, clearly sharing thematic threads with Blade Runner and its sequel, and also skirting around similar terrain as Wim Wenders' haunting Wings of Desire. But, thankfully, Oda isn't bogged down by his influences. Just as his protagonist has clear notions of what life should be, at least when Nine Days begins, the first-time filmmaker has a distinct vision for this beautiful and rousing movie. Unlike Will, Oda doesn't waver, reassess or have his ideas probed, however. Instead, he crafts a film that's certain in its message about valuing and seizing life, and just as assured and confident about conveying that concept quietly, patiently, affectingly and with grounded sincerity — and about earning every step in its emotional journey, rather than relying on platitudes.
With nuance and layers, that's how Nine Days can celebrate the simple act of appreciating the small things, and yet never comes across as if it's preaching a statement that's stitched onto a throw pillow. It's how Emma can introduce Will to a new perspective, and one he definitely needs, but never play like yet another manic pixie dream girl. It's also how the feature can wade into recognisable territory but avoid falling victim to all of the obvious cliches. That its central character lives and conducts his interviews in an ordinary-looking house that's surrounded by nothing but desert as far as the eye can see aptly reflects how the film itself appears familiar but always stands apart.
Another key factor that makes Nine Days the movie it is: its detail. That's a product of Oda's commitment, too. His on-screen realm looks and feels fleshed out and lived in, and so do his characters (yes, even given the premise). Visually, that approach delivers sights that slip onto the screen like favourite possessions, such as walls of old-school TVs, deep stares at both hopeful and pensive faces, and lingering gazes at the sandy expanse surrounding Will's house. Cinematographer Wyatt Garfield's (Beatriz at Dinner) striking shots are also measured, like they're genuinely taking the time to soak in every iota — and the production design he's peering at, including in a room used to give unsuccessful souls one happy memory to hold on to, is a Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind)-like treasure trove. The same care and attention is afforded Will, Emma, Kyo and their fellow pre-life inhabitants as well, as shines through in the movie's fine-tuned performances.
Nine Days is yet another movie that's filled with actors with recent comic book franchise credits; most films are these days. But Duke, Beetz and Wong are hardly talents shackled to their respective parts in Black Panther, Deadpool 2, Joker and Doctor Strange, or to any sprawling universes such titles connect to. They're all performers who bring humanity and vulnerability to their roles here, and in different ways. There's a guarded air of woundedness to Duke's phenomenal internalised portrayal — he's basically a traumatised guardian angel — and a lively curiosity and appreciation to Beetz's work, while Wong radiates empathy. Each of these three key players, and their fellow co-stars, also bake ambiguity into their performances. No person is just one thing, or can ever be solved, after all. That's truly what this evocative and memorable film is all about: the texture, experiences, feelings and enigmas that comprise every soul, and every life.