In the Sundance entry “Nine Days,” Will (Winston Duke, “Us”) operates between life and nonexistence. He lives alone in a house surrounded by a vast desert, and his job is to interview souls over the course of nine days to decide which one should be reincarnated. He observes the lives of the people he’s previously brought back on TV screens, which display their everyday existences through their eyes. Among them, Luiza is getting ready for her wedding, Rick is being bullied at school and Amanda has just died under suspicious circumstances, meaning Will has to choose another soul in her place.
The new souls — including Kane (Bill Skarsgård, “The Devil All the Time”), Alexander (Tony Hale, “Arrested Development”) and Emma (Zazie Beetz, “Joker”) — arrive at Will’s door one by one. They have fully developed personalities but, as Will explains, nothing they feel over the next nine days will compare to what they could feel in life. His methodology in choosing has clearly been perfected over many interactions, but Emma, an especially empathetic soul who often refuses to answer his questions or turns them back on him, forces him to reconcile with Amanda’s death.
In the process of choosing which soul will be given life, Will takes each through ethical what-if scenarios and tasks them with observing the everyday lives of the living to identify what they do and don’t like in order to understand how each soul would conduct themselves in life. These moments can be intriguing — it’s hard not to try to find your own solutions for Will’s scenarios — but they can also turn “Nine Days” into a vague crash course in moral philosophy.
In one scene, two souls who have clearly been set up as ethical foils, one representing optimism and the other pessimism, argue their approaches to life across the dinner table. The choice to blatantly spell out themes feels distrustful of both the audience’s ability to figure them out and of the film’s ability to impart its message in more abstract terms.
However, when “Nine Days” chooses to show rather than tell, it shines. Will decides to do the souls he eliminates a parting kindness — if they write down a moment they observed on the TV screens, he will do his best to replicate it. He constructs elaborate sets in an attempt to allow condemned souls to feel as alive as possible before they cease to exist. The scenes in which the souls indulge in these fabricated moments (an evening at the beach, a bike ride through town) do more to artfully articulate what director and screenwriter Edson Oda (debut) is trying to say than the heavy-handed debates. The beach at sunset, feet touching sand, wind in your hair, music — it’s the little things that make us feel alive.
The film is at its best when it is operating as a character study rather than a thesis on how to live a good life. Duke’s performance anchors everything: He brings palpable grief, kindness, loneliness and empathy to his character. Will is complex — he’s simultaneously desperate for connection and afraid of it, gentle but also incredibly angry — and Duke conveys this effortlessly. He makes it clear that, at its core, “Nine Days” is really about Will and how he learns from the souls he interacts with. His final monologue could have easily crossed the line from profound to corny, but Duke’s boisterous, joyful delivery keeps it firmly on the side of the former.
When it allows Duke to shine and balances profundity with restraint, “Nine Days” is life-affirming and thought-provoking. It’s an interesting take on the supernatural in its exploration of pre-existence rather than post-mortem, alongside being incredibly beautiful to look at and listen to. “Nine Days” is Oda’s feature debut, and he makes it clear that his is a name to look out for in the future.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at email@example.com..