‘Nine Days’ Examines What It Means to Be Alive

Image: Sundance Institute

Nine Days is director Edson Oda’s stunning debut feature that evokes a feeling of existentialism, as it asks the viewer to imagine what it would be like if you had to fight to be born. Nine Days is an incredible philosophical examination of humanity and one’s place in the world. The very concept of this film is wholly unique. It fully succeeds in its endeavour to make the viewer question what it means to be alive because in Nine Days, being alive is not guaranteed. In the realm of Nine Days, people do not merely exist accidentally or without purpose, they all deserve to be alive as they have to prove themselves worthy of existence.

This film stars Winston Duke as Will, who showcases his talent as an actor in his ability to portray Will as a character that has depth; Will shows restraint, but it is obvious that there are some cracks in his stoic demeanour. Will is living in the middle of a desert, a landscape that serves as a type of purgatory, where the souls that exist there are not yet alive. He has been tasked with choosing which souls deserve to be born. When someone living dies, another soul must subsequently be chosen to take their place.

Will puts these souls, or candidates, through a series of tests over the course of nine days, where only one soul will be chosen to be born at the end. When they are born, they will not remember the last nine days, but their personalities will remain. After the winner is chosen at the end of nine days, the losing candidates will cease to exist and this is all they will experience. Will is the one chosen to make these judgements because he was once given the privilege of being alive. He has seen what real life is like, having a unique perspective. At times, this perspective leads him to have a more pessimistic outlook that sharply contrasts with the candidates’ naivety.

Will lives out his days watching a handful of people’s lives. He is joined at times by his colleague, Kyo (Benedict Wong), who assists Will in choosing which special soul will get to continue. Will is particularly attached to one young girl he watches, Amanda (Lisa Starrett), a violinist. When a tragedy befalls Amanda, Will must immediately work to find another soul to be born in her place despite being preoccupied with the mystery surrounding her demise.

Soon the new candidates begin showing up at Will’s doorstep. He explains the concept to all of them: they will be tested in different ways throughout the course of nine days. A few of the candidates are Kane (Bill Skarsgård), Alexander (Tony Hale), Anne (Perry Smith), Maria (Arianna Ortiz), and Mike (David Rysdahl). Nine Days is full of great performances: Bill Skarsgård plays the stoic, analytical Kane with ease, and Tony Hale brings his signature comic relief as Alexander. All of the candidates exhibit distinct personalities, as well as their strengths and weaknesses, that are put on display throughout Will’s various questioning and tests. 

On day one, Will gives each candidate a scenario they must imagine themselves in, one that questions their sense of morality. It is almost as if Nine Days provides these ethical dilemmas not only for the candidates, but for the audience as well, allowing the viewer to also question what they would do in different scenarios and what their own sense of right and wrong is. At the end of the night, the last candidate, Emma (Zazie Beetz), shows up late to Will’s house, much to his dismay. This sets the tone of the rest of the film: there is an interesting dynamic between Will and Emma. Emma is endlessly inquisitive of Will and his experience as a person, as well as his job choosing souls. She is the opposite of Will, matching his ever-present pessimism with something he does not seem to possess much of anymore: hope. Zazie Beetz and Winston Duke display truly knockout performances as these two characters. 

In one test, Will asks the candidates to observe the television screens and watch as he does. They must write down what they like about living from what they can see. This allows the viewers to also observe along with them: someone putting their feet in the sand and letting waves wash over them, someone riding a bicycle down a road with stunning scenery going by, someone enjoying a cold beer. The greatness of Nine Days is that it gives us the opportunity to appreciate the small, beautiful moments that life has to offer along with the candidates. We get to witness the childlike wonder that they have when in awe of the things we are all guilty of taking for granted. Nine Days is a special film that makes its viewers feel special themselves, just by having the privilege of being alive in that moment. With such a masterful debut, it is exciting to imagine what else Oda will choose to do in the future.

by Alysha Prasad

Alysha Prasad (she/her) is a freelance writer who is going to be pursuing her Master’s Degree in Film and Television at DePaul University in Chicago. Her favorite films include: Call Me By Your Name, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Before Sunset. You can find her on Twitter at @leeshprasad.

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