In a nowhere space between life and death Will (Winston Duke) watches through old television sets the lives of souls he has chosen to experience life. From the young boy who is constantly bullied at school, to a young bride-to-be, through to a disabled ex-policeman he takes notes on their everyday experiences and files them with recorded video cassettes. Of particular interest to him is the young music prodigy Amanda who kills herself on the way to a major recital. For Will, Amanda’s death is a failure on his behalf. How could he have sent a soul that wasn’t strong enough to survive? Furthermore how could he not see that Amanda was suicidal?
To fill the gap left by Amanda Will has to interview a series of new souls over a nine-day period to determine which of them will be given the chance of life. If they are not chosen they cease to exist even in the liminal space between his reality and the human reality. Each soul will remain themselves if chosen to live but they will have no memory of Will and the before time.
Bringing together a collection of diverse personalities Will sets them questions and tasks to assess their suitability. The questions range from the kind of first-year philosophy conundrums often set to establish ideas like choosing for the greater good to simply asking the souls to watch the lives of the living on television and telling Will what they do and don’t like about what they see.
Assisting will in his choice is Kyo (Benedict Wong) who can only help Will and not interview subjects. Only a soul who has lived can be an interviewer. Kyo is a mysterious presence but in many ways the audience’s de facto window on Will. Who was Will when he was alive? Only Kyo knows and Will is utterly reticent to discuss his life with any of the curious candidates. Edo’s script suggests that Will lived a sad and lonely life on Earth and with the death of Amanda he’s particularly keen to avoid sending a soul that is too sensitive to live lest they are destroyed by the harshness of what life can offer.
Playing the roles of the souls are a number of actors including Zazie Beetz as Emma, Bill Skarsgård as Kane, Arianna Ortiz as Maria, and Tony Hale as Alexander. Each soul is defined and a fully formed person, yet they are confused by the rules that will possibly allow them to experience life. Of all the souls Emma is the only one who refuses to engage completely with Will. Emma knows that she possibly only has days to live so even in the before time she completely embraces the life that she has. Will is deeply challenged by her attitude which makes him assess both his position as an interviewer and to contemplate his own time on Earth.
By focusing the film mostly on Will, Edo crafts a character-based drama that doesn’t get as bogged down by the high-concept philosophical questions it elicits. Winston Duke is the beating heart of the film and his restrained and at times heartbreaking performance carries the piece where it could have easily faltered. Zazie Beetz and Benedict Wong are both sterling as supporting characters. Beetz’s Emma is a beacon of life within the confines of a non-life.
NINE DAYS opened to much acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival and it is a festival film. For a general audience perhaps it is a little too ponderous is places. However Edo creates some stellar and beautiful moments which remind the viewer of why life is worth living – the feeling of the ocean, the wind in one’s hair when riding a bike, the gentle lover turning the light off so their partner can sleep. It’s easy to forget the simplicity of what it is to live when faced with so much despair, yet Oda reminds us that both can co-exist and it is worth risking the worst for even the most ephemeral times that are the best.