REVIEW: Nine Days [2021]

Rating: 10 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 124 minutes
    Release Date: July 30th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
    Director(s): Edson Oda
    Writer(s): Edson Oda

Pull the chair.

Will (Winston Duke) is one of an unknown number of interviewers at the edge of existence: men and women who were once alive that now have the power to choose which newly created souls are worthy of the same opportunity. The interview period lasts nine days and is composed of philosophical quandaries, observations, and hypotheticals meant to better understand who these protohumans are and will remain if their consciousness is transferred to a baby ready for its first breath. Will tests their resolve, their strength, and their morality. He says there are no right or wrong answers, but at a certain point he decides which traits are necessary to survive mankind’s most despicable tendencies. Every new life therefore becomes evidence that reshapes his criteria and ultimately his purpose.

Why? Because he knows from experience that the sensibilities making him an unparalleled judge of character (emotion, empathy, and love) aren’t necessarily the same attributes that lead to a successful life. They tend to breed fear, cloud our ability to mistrust and question motives, and sometimes make us freeze in a moment only salvageable by action. But they also allow us to lead a full life capable of noticing the beauty that surrounds us despite the horrors forever creeping in from our periphery. They help us feel alive and push us to take risks that express our inner desires as opposed to simply existing to survive. Will is supposed to be selecting those worthy of the best life offers, but every stumble has him looking for longevity instead.

That’s not to say writer/director Edson Oda doesn’t imbue his lead character with the laudable talent of letting the good outweigh the bad. Will looks at the wall of tube-TVs projecting the viewpoints of those souls he granted life with pride rather than terror. He records them as their days unfold in real-time on VHS tapes, scribbling notes about their wellbeing and how that which he saw in them has helped shape them to lead fruitful lives on their own. Because he isn’t some father-figure pulling strings. Once he picks them, they will remember nothing of their time under his care and he will be unable to do anything but watch. He must therefore champion their resiliency instead of wallowing in their mistakes. Until one TV goes dark.

It’s Amanda’s untimely death at twenty-eight that ignites the latest interview period designated by the title, Nine Days. She was Will’s favorite for many reasons. Reminding him of himself was one he’d never speak aloud. It was only in her capacity to feel, though. Not her willingness to do. The little we learn about Will states that he had the talent for greatness when alive, but also the crippling fear to sabotage its ability to carry him. Amanda is the opposite. She’s a star violinist who thrives on-stage and plays with the sort of emotion that separates professionals from geniuses. It’s no surprise then that Kyo (Benedict Wong)—a supervisor of sorts who ensures Will remains up to task—makes an excuse to watch her play with him.

The tragedy is too much for Will because of what she still had to offer as well as what it might mean for his aptitude in choosing souls correctly. Maybe Amanda was the victim of an accident or maybe she took her own life. One can be forgiven enough for him to move on and appreciate that which she brought to the world in her brief time upon it. The other leads to the sort of self-recrimination that causes him to retreat even further into the binary aspects of his job rather than the reclamation of those traits that earned him the job in the first place. His interviews become mean and confrontational as he desperately scours Amanda’s tapes for answers. He grows ever more cynical and colder.

But we know who he is beneath that veneer of self-loathing and regret. We know what Kyo knows: that Will might be the best of them all because of his continued capacity to show compassion. As he begins to weed his new stable of hopefuls (Perry Smith‘s Anne, Bill Skarsgård‘s Kane, Arianna Ortiz‘s Maria, David Rysdahl‘s Mike, Tony Hale‘s Alexander, and Zazie Beetz‘s Emma) out, he offers them each a moment their days-old approximations of brains hold as special. Since not earning a life means fading away from existence completely, he provides the consolation of experiencing something they saw on those TVs for themselves whether a day at the beach or a bicycle ride through a city. Will understands the importance of small, undefinable moments that spark joy.

Everything he does during these nine days is thus as much about testing his candidates as it is leading him to a fork in the road between that which he knows in his heart to be true and that which his mind demands. Is Alexander’s laissez-faire attitude naivete or confidence? Is Mike’s lack of self-worth enough to derail his potential? Does Maria’s loving nature make her too weak to see the ways in which it might ruin her chances to flourish? What about Kane’s hard-edged manipulations? Will they protect him more than they may risk others? And how about Emma’s refusal to let chaos undermine life’s propensity to surprise? Does her fascination with finding pleasure everywhere she looks make her uniquely suited to survive or liable to fail?

Will should be weighing them against each other because they’re his choices and only one can “win.” But he’s also weighing them against his remorse about the opportunities he squandered and the possibility that Amanda squandered hers too. Isn’t doing so selfish, though? Doesn’t that line of thinking create more fear by declaring everything good and hopeful we’ve ever done as less than that which we didn’t? What would the world be if Will only populated it with cynics and connivers? The souls he grants life might survive longer, but at what cost to the bigger picture? Is a bully suddenly worth more than his victim? Does Amanda’s death being ruled a suicide erase the beauty her presence and music gave the world? Isn’t the latter worth more?

Like his tests, these questions have no right answers. Not really. Not universally speaking. What they do hold is a right answer for you. And me. And Will. We all have the choice to see the best or worst in people. We all have the choice to accept that life is too precious to waste even if wars, famine, and genocide make it seem as though nothing matters. It does, though. The men and women who perish matter and those with the privilege to keep living would be good to remember their sacrifice whether it was willingly for us or not. Every candidate that Will sends to the abyss of nothingness disappears so the one he sends to Earth can thrive. The formers’ shortcomings reveal the latter’s strength.

And in many respects Will is the former too. He died so someone could take his place. But he’s also the latter because he remains in his isolated house watching his “winners” on TV. What then are his shortcomings and strengths? Are they what he believes them to be or is he too angry and frustrated to recognize the opposite? Duke is phenomenal in the role because he embraces this conflict and lets its pain direct his emotional upheaval and catharsis forward. That which he didn’t accomplish has made him believe he didn’t deserve the life he had. Will believes he doesn’t deserve to feel alive again either. He bestows that gift upon his outcasts, but not himself because he’s forgotten life isn’t about succeeding. It’s about so much more.

[1] Center: Winston Duke as Will in NINE DAYS. Photo by Michael Coles. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
[2] Center: Zazie Beetz as Emma in NINE DAYS. Photo by Michael Coles. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
[3] Center: Benedict Wong as Kyo in NINE DAYS. Photo by Michael Coles. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
[4] Center: Arianna Ortiz as Maria in NINE DAYS. Photo by Michael Coles. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

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