“Nine Days” takes a ludicrous premise and plays it straight. Writer-director Edson Oda’s innovative drama revolves around the tireless plight of Will (Winston Duke), a jaded middle-manager trapped in a purgatorial cycle of interviewing souls for the opportunity of life. Oda’s script is rich with bold ideas, beginning with the surreal notion of entire lives unfolding through VHS tapes and climaxes with a hyperbolic recitation of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” It’s an enchanting fantasy bookended with genuine emotional beats. Somewhere in between them, however, it settles into a dreary slog bogged down by repetitive existential blather over the course of two hours, as if enmeshed in a soul-searching journey of its own.
Oda’s ambitious feature debut works overtime to maintain its visionary conceit. The opening act has a striking immersive quality as the purgatorial setting gradually comes together. Spending tireless hours in a dimly-lit house surrounded by emptiness in every direction, Will watches the lives of the souls he selected unfold in grainy first-person footage while scribbling notes about each one, tracking the days and making note of every high point and hardship. His assistant (Benedict Wong) brings some levity into Will’s peculiar routine, but Will — who, unlike his peer, once lived a life of his own and doesn’t like to talk about it — has grown so absorbed with his viewing habits he’s like the binge-viewing version of a guardian angel.
The opening moments of “Nine Days” maintain a haunting, immersive energy, with Will’s multi-channel setup resembling a Nam June Paik installation from the great beyond, and Duke’s somber investment in his task carrying a profound sense of mystery. That’s when tragedy strikes, as Will watches one of his favorite selections, a violinist named Amanda, suddenly bring her life to an abrupt end. But Will has little time to investigate the tragedy before he’s forced to get to work, as new souls converge on his desert compound for the bureaucratic process of interviewing for the vacant spot in his roster.
The ensuing process unfolds like a cerebral variation on the quirky heavenly sagas that preceded it. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “After Life” provides the most obvious point of comparison, though Will’s shadowy lair has glimmers of Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire,” and there’s an aspect of “This Is Your Life” to the reality-show competition as Will explains it to the various candidates who come across his desk. The souls arrive freshly cognizant and filled with personality, as Will explains to them the rules: They get nine days to audition for life while completing a range of tasks he sets before them; the winner won’t remember any of it, but “you will still be you.”
Let the metaphors settle in, or just roll with the literal-mindedness of the plot, because once the ensemble is complete, Oda provides a colorful set of personalities. These include a sensitive-eyed Arianna Ortiz, a laidback Bill Skarsgard, and ever-amusing Tony Hale as a jokester whose disinterest in taking Will’s process seriously sets up his main foil. But none of the candidates create more complications for the overseer than the one Will dubs Emma (Zazie Beetz), a free spirit who resists the mind games Will enacts on each of them. Instead, she takes a greater interest in Will himself — where he came from and why he’s so reticent to reveal the challenges he faced in life. For much of the movie, she roams the interiors of the home, watching his unusual job take place and questioning his icy commitment.
While “Nine Days” unfurls with tremendous imagination in its opening stretch, it loses much of that entrancing appeal by eschewing surrealism for dramaturgy, lengthy epistemological arguments and hyperbolic emotional outbursts that might have registered better on the stage. (In the fact, the movie’s minimalist set would lend itself well to a theatrical setup.) Will’s chemistry with Wong’s ebullient character is appealing in fits and starts, while Beetz brings a credible degree of skepticism to her individualist mindset, but Oda’s script struggles to make this dynamic as compelling as the ethereal world he establishes upfront.
Nevertheless, the movie provides a remarkable showcase for Duke’s range, a world apart from the dopey dad of “Us” or stern warrior of “Black Panther,” and his talent only becomes more central as the character opens himself up. Oda clearly has a talent for juggling nuanced performances with a cinematic eye, working with versatile cinematographer Wyatt Garfield (whose recent credits range from “Diane” to “Give Me Liberty”) to create an absorbing environment at every stage — the hazy desert surroundings and shadowy interior are dreamlike and grounded at once. Oda’s evident affection for Michel Gondry comes through in the use of practical sets to enhance the otherworldly backdrop, particularly in a series of entrancing scenes where Will stages touching moments for rejected souls to give them some measure of happiness before they’re blinked out of existence.
“Nine Days” has enough depth and intrigue to suggest the material for a short that never quite found its way, though some viewers may find its open-ended spiritual implications compelling enough to roll with its overwrought second half. For this one, however, the movie overextends itself by shrugging off the eerie world-building to let the metaphors take charge; by the end, the premise has devolved into an actor’s showcase with a flimsy foundation. There’s certainly enough here to provoke meaningful questions that transcend the boundaries of the frame, and “Nine Days” hits a commendable note about the value of embracing life’s unpredictable turns. But no matter its celestial implications, the movie can’t shake the impression of a brilliant concept that never takes flight.
“Nine Days” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.