In a film landscape filled with reboots, remakes and (usually) mediocre adaptations, the speculative supernatural drama that is Edson Oda’s directorial debut feature, Nine Days, shone and called to me like a beacon. Now don’t get me wrong, I am an avid lover of superhero movies, action-filled blockbusters and surface level comedies; but when I watched the trailer for this film, I got excited. Rarely do you get to see speculative and abstract films get made these days. In a twist of the last decade that saw the rise of limited mini-series and anthologies (such as Westworld and Black Mirror), you’re more likely to encounter thought-provoking narratives on one of many streaming services than in a cinema. Nine Days tries to bring that magic and emotion back to the big screen.
Nine Days takes a look at the meaning of life through formerly-alive Will (Black Panther’s Winston Duke), now charged with the duty of choosing other unborn souls to experience life. Every day Will wakes up, sits on his couch in front of a myriad of old-school TV screens, and watches the lives of these now living souls. His favourite is Amanda, a 28-year-old violin prodigy. We see her as a child, staring up at her parents, playing with friends, riding the bus, and practicing for her concerto—an event that we see Will and his friend Kyo dress up for. We know Amanda is special; so when she unexpectedly dies right before her concerto, we are left stunned alongside Will. Before he can even process the grief and reality of her death the new souls start to arrive, and Will must begin the process of filling her empty TV screen with a new life. It’s here that we meet the rest of the stellar cast. It’s Emma (Atlanta and Deadpool 2’s Zazie Beetz) that we must focus on—who declines Will’s choice for a new soul to pick one out for herself. And thus begins the nine-day trial of deciding which soul will receive new life.
Before I get into the nitty gritty, I first want to express the absolute awe I experienced while watching Duke. I’d only ever seen him in Black Panther as the overtly masculine and ferocious M’Baku. But even knowing who he was, Duke was unrecognisable as Will. Despite his large, muscled frame, Duke embodied the quiet, almost apathetic Will—to the point that I swore I wasn’t watching a character, but a completely different person entirely. His portrayal of the apathy that depression brings, and the suffocated pain and sorrow that the indifference hides, connected with me in a genuine way that many films, TV shows and actors haven’t been able to.
When it came to the plot, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. The idea that there is a process which is out of our hands (with beings deciding whose soul is worthy of life and who isn’t, and of which some will fail whilst others will thrive) is a concept that I think audiences would find interesting. The plot is ripe with philosophical avenues to explore—namely, the age-old question of what is the meaning of life. And that’s where I believe the film ultimately stumbled and failed to recover from. To tackle such a time-worn (and honestly cliché) question is to invite critique and hinder believability.
Of course, when watching a speculative story, a certain suspension of disbelief is part of the agreement, but that is hard to maintain when the concept is bogged down by too many unanswered questions and not enough meat in the questions it asks of us. Instead of focusing on the story unwinding before me, my attention would catch on small details that could have been opportunities to enhance the world building. In all of this vast, other-worldly limbo dimension, Will lives in a small, almost cottage-like house. Why? Perhaps it’s the house that best suits his soul. But no, we see early in the film another such house with another judgemental being watching other living souls. His house stands in an empty desert; the unborn souls come and go with no explanation of why or where they come from or go to. There is a junkyard nearby, filled with broken furniture and relics of the past that Will digs through for supplies when he needs to build something for the other characters. Why? What is the point of this, apart from pushing forward the plot?
Ideologically, Nine Days presents the common notion that life is best enjoyed in the little moments, despite all the highs and lows. While I think this is definitely a topic worth discussing and internalising, I found myself wanting (and expecting) more. The problem that comes with tackling such a broad belief is that it leaves little room for nuance. The five souls we spend the most time with can all be reduced to one-word descriptions—Emma is idealistic, Kane is a cynic, Maria is emotional, Alexander is callous, Mike is insecure and Kyo functions as a support for Will’s journey. It is hard to care about any of the characters when all we are given is one side of them, and not enough world-building to satiate our curiosity. I found myself wishing that the film had been from Will’s perspective completely, and more deeply exploring his story. I saw glimpses of interesting commentary on finding a personal reason to live, on passion and unfulfilled potential, and the depression that it brings. The longer I watched the more this hunger for a different story grew. Will is devastated by Amanda’s death, because she had achieved everything he couldn’t when he was alive and, yet, in the end she chose to take her own life. I wanted more than anything for that to be the part of the human experience the film investigated. I wanted the film that could have been—one that wasn’t afraid to acknowledge the hardships of life and stressed the importance of persevering in the face of it. Not the surface-level philosophy of enjoying the little moments that is a staple in many a millennial white girl’s Instagram and gratitude journals.
Ultimately, there are many things you can say about Nine Days. It’s evocative. Emotional. Philosophical. But impactful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.