Sleeper of the Week: "Nine Days"

Edson Oda's haunting metaphysical fantasy-drama comes to VOD

Sleeper of the Week: "Nine Days"

The Nut Graf: “Nine Days” (available for rent on Amazon and elsewhere) is a brooding, inventively realized allegory about souls waiting to be born. (*** stars out of ****)

Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz in “Nine Days”

A man sits in a house on the edge of a desert. In his living room is a bank of TVs, each of which is tuned to an individual human life, seen from behind the eyes of the human living it. When one of the screens goes blank – when one of the people dies – a group of new souls appears from out of the sands and the man, Will (Winston Duke), interviews them over a nine-day period before deciding which of them will get to be born. The movie is called “Nine Days,” and it is a confident, at times profoundly moving debut feature from writer-director Edson Oda.

I first saw “Nine Days” at Sundance back in January 2020 (which is why I’m blurbed in the trailer below) and it has stayed with me ever since. Being stuck in a house on the edge of a viral wasteland for a year and a half probably had something to do with it – perhaps you know the feeling? Now the movie’s available for streaming rental on Amazon, DirecTV, Google Play, and YouTube, and it’s strongly recommended. Not all of it works, and if you can’t buy into the conceit from the get-go, fine, but rarely does a filmmaker, let alone a first timer, come out swinging so assuredly.

Winston Duke in “Nine Days”

Will has a neighbor, Kyo (Benedict Wong), an outgoing happy chappie who is also in the business of vetting souls. Unlike Kyo, Will has experienced life on Earth himself. The experience seems to have soured him, or maybe it’s the death of Amanda, a violinist who was one of Will’s most prized selections, in the early going of the film. Either way, this spiritual functionary is in a spiritual funk, and Duke digs deep to portray a kind but troubled man as different from the actor’s brash rival prince in “Black Panther” as can be imagined.

Will’s new crew of candidates include Mike (David Rysdahl), a shy artist; Maria (Arianna Ortiz), elegant and eager to please; a talkative sort named Alex (the always welcome Tony Hale of “Veep”); and Kane (Bill Skarsgård), a young man with a brutal edge. A late arrival is Emma (Zazie Beetz), relaxed and self-possessed and challenging Will to think outside the box of his self-pity. (Despite the actors’ differing onscreen ages, all these characters would be born as babies on Earth; if you’re expecting narrative logic, you’re in the wrong movie.) What qualities would best serve a newcomer to life? Talent? Toughness? Empathy? Ego? That’s the existential choice the movie poses to both Will and to us, and “Nine Days” is honest enough to acknowledge that sentiment has little to do with it, no matter who we may be rooting for.

Zazie Beetz in “Nine Days”

Director Oda has a career as an award-winning commercial filmmaker, and the production design of his first feature is generous to the point of overdetermination, from the weathered American Craftsman architecture of Will’s house to the cluttered back rooms where this lonely bureaucrat keeps his files to the arid flats where unchosen souls melt back into the mists. It’s a fascinating movie to look at and to contemplate – and to listen to, thanks to Antonio Pinto’s haunting score – and it feels astonishingly complete all the way up to the final scenes, when you realize that Oda has scrupulously painted the film into a corner. (I like Walt Whitman as much as the next guy, but I wouldn’t just hand over the screenplay to him.)

For all its originality, “Nine Days” falls into a known category that I like to think of as Bardo Movies, after the Buddhist term for the liminal stage between death and birth. Classics like “A Matter of Life and Death” (1946)” and “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” (1941) – and the latter’s 1978 remake, “Heaven Can Wait” – have set up shop here, and last year’s “Soul” was the Pixar family version. In the wrong hands, it can turn into afterlife kitsch – ladies and gentlemen, Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones” (2009). In better hands, you can get something like the delicate Japanese fable “After Life” (1998), to which “Nine Days” is a close cousin. Edson Oda has good hands, tasteful hands, and he has used them to fashion a tale that may leave you blinking in the light of your own life on Earth.

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