We are born, we live, and we die. Before we can get on that particular merry-go-round, however, we must first be interviewed. The interrogator is tall, quiet, fastidious, well-dressed. Small granny spectacles perch on his nose as he asks questions of those who sit before him. And when he’s not doing that, he’s reviewing former “vacancies” that he’s filled, watching on a bank of monitors displaying numerous lives in progress. If we are lucky, we are chosen to go forth, from cradle to grave. If not, perhaps the man will do what he can to give us one fleeting moment of happiness before we disappear into the ether.
This is the premise of Nine Days, Edson Oda’s odd, affecting portrait of a prelife purgatory A cross between a Gondry-esque chin-stroker and a Zen Buddhist tweak on The Good Place, Nine Days — so named for the length it takes to choose a candidate for birth — has its share of near-twee tics. Will, the stoic gent who’s one of this limbo’s selectors, dresses like an uptight Amish metaphysics professor. (He’s played by Us/Black Panther star Winston Duke, who proves he’s as adept at art-house minimalism as he is at horror/Marvel movie maximalism.) His headquarters is a throwback Craftsman house in the middle of a literal nowhere, and he watches his former picks go about their lives via vintage home-entertainment equipment and videotapes. Before a life begins, it’s represented by color bars and a test-pattern whistle. Last-wish requests turn into arts-and-crafts projects involving fake beach scenes, movie screens, stationary cycles, jaunty music, teary cheeks.
Yet what might seem, at first sneer, like just a hipster’s notion of eternity as an artisanal, analog-tech ghost town eventually reveals a deeper purpose, and a determination to move past any too-cool-for-film-school superficiality. A Japanese Brazilian filmmaker with a background in commercials, Oda is taking big philosophical swings with his debut: What are the nature of souls? Is a life something to be earned, rather than gifted? Does the beauty of being human outweigh the pain of existence, or do these two elements symbiotically feed off each other, yin to yang? Who are we, before we are anything at all?
Having been shaken by seeing a former case study die in a car crash, Will has begun questioning the nature of his endeavor as he and his assistant (Benedict Wong) run through a new batch of candidates, some of whom are played by Tony Hale (funny), Bill Skarsgård (freaky), and Zazie Beetz (fabulous). The latter, in particular, keeps lobbing queries back at the interviewer, forcing him to engage in a way he’d usually rather not. Not to mention the fact that Will is one of the few in this vaguely pastoral purgatory to have actually been on Earth, an experience that still weighs on him.
It’s heavy, heady stuff, coming at you via a delivery system of catalog-worthy set design, magic-hour cinematography, and often tamped-down, deadpan performances. And somehow, it all works in harmony to create a ripple effect of feeling that reverberates strongly under its placid surfaces. (The closest thing this resembles isn’t something like, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind so much as Columbus, that quiet, contemplative indie sleeper starring John Cho from 2017 that also trafficked in form-and-content exteriors and interior musings.) Oda was quoted as saying that during production, Wong dubbed the film “spi-fi,” short for “spiritual fiction” — an apt catch-all term that applies to a growing subgenre that speculates on life after death, life before life, literal long, dark/light nights of the soul, et al. So many of these stories tend to leave little more than a whimsical, chalky quirk-cinema aftertaste. Nine Days doesn’t just tempt fate on that count; it also asks that its lead actor send the movie off with an almost childlike dramatic interpretation of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” The degree of difficulty is high. The payoff, somehow, is extraordinary.
This review originally ran as part of our 2020 Sundance Film Festival coverage.