There have been quite a few films like Nine Days, the life-after-death genre that has been presented many times before in such films as Heaven Can Wait, Albert Brook’s Defending Your Life, Kore-eda Hirokazu’s After Life, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and of course last year we had Pixar’s Soul. Sometimes filmmakers treat the material comical and wonderous, other times earnest or conventional. There have also been many films about characters confronted with angel like spirits prepare the character into a afterlife realm with such works as Wim Wenders Wings of Desire, Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, the Polish Brothers Northfork, and of course Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. What each of those films have is something elegiac, existential, philosophical, and even complex. An official entry at the 2020 Sundance, Nine Days is the feature film debut from short filmmaker Edson Oda, which is very conceptual like a short film, shot mostly in desolate open spaces in a confined setting of a house in a desert. The film also holds a lot of the same sensibilities with the boldly allegorical films mentioned above.
Tonally the film feels much like Northfork, and like that film it feels very much a fable. In fact, here are shots of the remote house that look just like Northfork. Premise wise, the film feels very much like Defending Your Life with some existentialist shades of Bergman, but much more water downed, matter–of-fact, and not as cerebral. Which is fine, sometimes some films want to engage you with character depth instead of being accused of being pretentious or being “artsy”, but Nine Days misses that mark. While the ending has a very moving emotional payoff-along with many other engaging moments–Nine Days in many other areas is very dry, dramatically repetitious as it hits many of the same notes, and at times it feels inert. All around the film is a thoughtful one with some beautiful imagery, some really strong performances, a few resonant moments, but it never fully satisfies outside of that.
The overall result is an adequate and commanding effort that suffers from it’s over-written and overly verbose script, Oda could have made the film more elegiac and awe-inspiring had he allowed more visual leeway and conceptualization that is very much hinted at in the film. Even on a character level, none of the characters feel as fully fleshed out as they could have been. Oda has been on record stating After Life and The Tree of Life were huge influences, and you can see that in the film. However, those films didn’t draw too much attention to their realms, which left you dazzled and involved with each frame with rich ambiguity, where Oda’s film brings a little too much attention to itself with its redundant writing and tedious pacing.
Film opens up in a limbo outer realm of Will (Winston Duke) who spends eternity watching video footage of people on Earth on stacks of very old TV monitors. At first you think he is a voyeur like Jean-Louis Trintignant Le Judge character in Kiewlowzki’s Three Colors–Red. However, it becomes clear that he is a gatekeeper of this realm. Will’s task is to screen candidates who are human beings as souls whose job is sent to Earth to be born and to live. The only qualification for the souls is that they have lived once before in a previous life, and eventually they will not have any memories of their past lives once they are born again on Earth. Will is startled once he realizes that Amanda, a violinist and one of his previous candidates that he passed through committed suicide on Earth, Will begins to question his own judgment and meaning of his own existence. Duke is quite great here, his performance holds a lot of charisma and conflicting tones, sadly the writing doesn’t dive as emotionally as it could have.
Will must go select one of the five candidates: Maria (Arianna Ortiz), a shy and quirky woman who begins to hold feelings on will; Alex (Tony Hale), a polite man who avoids the vileness of life in the videos, Kane (Bill Skarsgard), a stern tough guy who believes the essence of life is retaliation to uphold justice; Mike (David Rysdahl) a vulnerable artist; and Emma (Zazie Beetz), who never holds anything back in how she feels. They all have a period of nine days to prove to Will they are the right candidate for living. The candidates not chosen, will thin into air enjoying what they love most. There is a beautiful scene involving a bike and a projector that truly stood out to me, the other chactere subplots and payff didn’t standout as spiritual or ethereal as they could have been.
Nine Days certainly has its moments, Oda is a talented filmmaker, but his material isn’t as fascinating as it could have been. While offering some existential ideas about the meaning of life, the material never feels fresh, and like many first-time directors Oda finds himself being a little too forced with the material. With a fantastical premise and some ravishing shots that sell the otherworldly setting of being a purgatory, the writing would have benefited had the ideas of salvation, freedom, hope, and despair been more intricate and raw. The film never quite hit the elliptical chord that is needed, and every character and most payoffs come off contrived. It’s a temperament that everything, even life in the afterlife has meaning. While the films close with a very beautiful final scene and image, the effect is transporting. All the quibbles and missteps almost feel redeemed, and the final shot makes you wish more of the film was like that. Perhaps Oda will only elevate his framework in his sophomore outing from here? I should also confess that I watched Nine Days right after watching Leos Carax’s Annette, which was very much on my mind upon screening. Perhaps a second viewing will process the material more? There are certainly moments in Nine Days that I’m still thinking about, but other moments not as much.