Nine Days: What’s It Like to Be Alive?, by Dave Platt
In Edson Oda’s affecting debut feature Nine Days, Will (Winston Duke) is a man who lives alone in a house that stands isolated in the middle of a vast desert landscape. It is his job, we learn, to interview prospective souls for the opportunity to be given the gift (and responsibility) of life, and be born into the world. Going into the film, I was ambivalent about this set-up, an exceedingly bold concept that might so easily have been rendered trite or self-satisfied in the wrong hands. But what the writer/director and his cast have created is something beautiful, as emotionally wrenching as it is elegantly constructed.
Will is no emotionally detached bureaucrat, much as he evidently tries hard to be. On the contrary, it is clear that, having once been alive himself, he knows only too well the pain of living in the real world. Duke is outstanding as Will, and plays him as someone whose no-nonsense attitude is an only-too-transparent cover for a melancholy that bespeaks some deep-seated emotional wound. His surliness is a stark contrast to the cheerfulness of his only companion Kyo (a delightful Benedict Wong), a soul that was never alive but for some reason did not disappear after not being selected as others do. Will spends most of his time watching first-person POV’s of different lives being played out on a wall of analog television sets, but when one of those people, a woman with whom he seems to have an especially profound connection, dies, candidates begin to materialize in the hope of taking the vacancy she has left.
The movie focuses on a few hopeful souls, key among them Emma (Zazie Beetz), Kane (Bill Skarsgård), Alexander (Tony Hale), Maria (Arianna Ortiz) and Mike (David Rysdahl). Over nine days, Will puts the hopeful souls through a series of tests designed to evoke individual responses to questions or situations. He gives them access to the wall of televisions and allows them to observe the world through the eyes of people in it. As he whittles them down, he takes note of their differing reactions to these scenarios, as well as their nascent personalities that develop as the film goes on. It is in many of these differences in reaction that the film most strikingly ponders life and experience. Is it more important that we attune to the simple pleasures of life and risk naivety or that we are cognizant of its dangers and protect ourselves? Are both of these views equally compatible with living in the moment and taking nothing for granted? Whereas one of the film’s characters might focus on the beauty of life’s ephemeral joys, another might see a much harsher picture of existence that emphasizes the world’s cruelty. Where one might cry, another might laugh.
With such a set-up, these characters could have ended up being mere ciphers for a set of ideological or metaphysical discussions. But the work of the entire cast is so moving and genuine that this is never a possibility. Although they start off as embodiments of more or less singular traits, as their exposure to life’s experiences (or images of them) continues, they grow into more fully fledged beings, hungry for life. They go from voyeurs, watching the world from afar to really feeling and empathizing. This only makes it all the more poignant when those who are not selected must fall away. For Will, this process challenges the wall he has endeavoured to put up between himself and his feelings (not to mention the candidates). His emotional journey runs in parallel to these souls’. While they start off relatively blank and lean toward the world they hope to be allowed to inhabit, Will finds it painful to think about life too much, and for one who claims to know just how precious it is, he struggles to open himself up to fully dealing with his own experiences. He is all past, while they are all future.
I loved the movie’s sparse, simple visual style. The cinematography makes great use of open space, and manages to be reserved in a way that matches Will’s interior life, while still stylish and distinct. The spare sets feel similarly refined, and together these elements create a feeling of stillness and quiet dignity, as the house seems to be both cluttered and empty at once. There is something wonderfully idiosyncratic about the costumes, such as Will’s mid-century outfit complete with suspenders and cardigan, and production design that embraces a timeless analogue aesthetic, from the television sets ranging from 1950s to ‘90s styles, along with VCRs and VHS tapes, to the myriad filing cabinets in Will’s office and the presence of old-fashioned rear-projection technology. That the other characters’ dress seems to come from different places and times allows the costuming of each applicant to be even more distinct in giving each a sense of individuality.
Judging by this debut, Edson Oda is a filmmaker with a great deal of empathy and emotional intelligence and striking visual sensibility. Most impressively, especially for a first feature, he seems to be blessed with a keen sense of restraint and patience, of how to balance things just right so that his ideas breathe and come to life evocatively without ever becoming overwrought. After this, I’m certainly looking forward to his development across future projects.
Invigorating in its earnestness, but never cloying or sentimental, Nine Days is a meditation on the unlikely, fleeting beauty of being alive.