Once upon a time, cinema was the vanguard of daring ideas. In 1957, for example, Ingmar Bergman had his protagonist play chess with the Grim Reaper. Popular cinema always dominated the box office (then as now), but in the late 2010s, daring films seemed to have been pushed to the very margins. The pandemic has changed all that. With many big-budget productions either delayed or dropped altogether, smaller, more thoughtful films have had a chance to shine. This year alone we’ve seen risk-taking films like First Cow, Ema and Lapsis in mainstream cinemas. But few films are quite as audacious as Nine Days.
Director and writer Edson Oda crafts a stunning directorial debut. Filled with big ideas, intimate moments, stunning landscapes and wry humour, Nine Days is possibly unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Oda has a distinctive vision that’s a little reminiscent of Miranda July’s (Kajillionaire). This high-concept tale would be a struggle for a seasoned filmmaker to translate to the screen, but Oda manages it seemingly effortlessly.
Most of the film takes place in a house set in a desolate wasteland. Inside, Will (Winston Duke) and his friend Kyo (Benedict Wong) oversee the lives of a group of humans via TV screens. They’re a bit like guardian angels, but they can’t intervene in their charges’ lives. They witness love, bullying and struggle. But they seem to have developed a particular connection with Amanda (Lisa Starrett), a rising concert violinist. But sadly Amanda passes away suddenly, and Will now has to choose a new unborn soul to take her place. While Kyo will help out, the decision is Will’s alone – the difference being that Will has been alive before, but Kyo hasn’t. The candidates begin showing up at the door. They each have nine days to convince Will they’re the right soul to be born into the world.
The candidates include the self-assured Kane (Bill Skarsgård), the rather smarmy Alexander (Tony Hale) and the free-spirited Emma (Zazie Beetz). Will asks each candidate a series of probing – sometimes troubling – questions. They also get the chance to watch the TVs and see how real people are behaving out there in the world. After “retiring” some unsuitable candidates, Will faces an increasingly tough choice. Does he go with a “safe bet”, at times blaming himself for somehow not seeing the danger Amanda was in? Or does he go with someone who’s more of a risk, but capable of living a fuller life? And Emma is both confounding him and intriguing him by her refusal to play the “game” by Will’s rules.
Oda’s script tiptoes the fine line between profundity and pretense. For the most part, he successfully navigates that tricky terrain. You could argue his conclusion ties things up in a bow that’s a bit too neat for the complex subject matter. Still, it would be churlish to nitpick his ambition to swing for the fences. He creates some amazing cinema, including a wonderful scene between Will and candidate Mike (David Rysdahl) that will live in the memory.
Dan Hermansen complements Oda’s vision with some extremely clever production design. And I need to specially mention the extraordinary score by Antonio Pinto (Diego Maradona) that’s worth the price of admission by itself. The acting is fabulous, led by fearless performances from Winston Duke (Spenser Confidential) and Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2).
Nine Days is a small movie with grand themes. Certainly, Oda’s deliberate pacing and sometimes philosophical approach won’t appeal to everyone. But this is a film of vision and ambition that deserves to be seen.
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television