Feature debut director Edson Oda melds science fiction and spiritual drama into one sensuous whole with Nine Days, a new film on bruised matters of the heart and soul. Unimposing, but with a tangible and wholly conceived vision of otherworldly things, this is an increasingly rare type of ambitious independent American cinema with a wide scope. A film about the human experience that takes on not the afterlife but the before, Nine Days captivates the head and heart, taking on grand themes of what it means to face life’s pain and beauty, avoiding pretension and oversentimentality thanks to Oda’s confidently delicate touch.
Winston Duke anchors the film as Will, an auditor of sorts who decides on which souls are worthy of human life on earth. Every few days, a new set of corporeal souls enter the desolate desert home he keeps and Will interviews them for their preparedness for existence. He watches footage of his past selected honorees and makes a reluctant companion to Kyo (Benedict Wong), his one lingering soul, and relinquishes the souls of his unchosen candidates. As a new group arrives—a complementary ensemble that includes Zazie Beetz, Bill Skarsgård, and Tony Hale—Will faces his own questions about the value of living when one of his most treasured and accomplished selected souls suddenly dies on Earth.
Earnestness need not be a dirty word for Oda, as Nine Days’ sincerity works effectively opposite its high concept and tactile presentation. The film is somewhat accomplished for a debut, particularly for how its emotional ripeness avoids triteness. Instead, Oda peppers it with a spirit of invention, grafting sequences where the candidates experience memories with an art installation style of stagecraft and set design. In Nine Days’ execution, a difficult balance is struck to avoid the over-saccharine and the too highly philosophical, and the writer-director surprisingly never overplays any of those cards. It wants you to think about the light of life when faced with the certainty of darkness, something with deep allegorical reach as our world financially and ecologically erodes.
Oda is after introspective, personal themes, which makes few working actors as well-suited to his material than Winston Duke. The wildly versatile actor gives his most breathtakingly alive performance here, defined more by what he is unable to bury than Will’s characteristic self-stifling. It’s hackneyed to frame Will as the weight of existence on his shoulders, yet Duke possesses the combination of ease and gravitas to portray something so grand with grace. Similarly, Will’s enigmatic qualities could be uninterestingly blank in less intuitive hands. Duke’s work plunges into the human spirit as Will recedes and flourishes alike, producing a performance that is a living, breathing embodiment of Oda’s themes. The movie maybe doesn’t work as well as it does without a central performance as exquisite as Duke’s.
While Nine Days likely concludes as many will expect and not offer much new perspective on the necessity of approaching life with an open, unrestrained soul, the film shows promise for Edson Oda as a humanist and visually adept writer-director. Where it lacks in surprise, it makes up for in subtle ingenuity and grounded pathos that fulfill the promise of its high concept better than most recent ambitious debuts.