Sundance Review: Nine Days
If there is an afterlife — whatever that may entail — will there be an individual moment of reckoning, a point during which we will be judged by some higher power and forced to account for the choices we made during our time on earth? It’s a question that drives not only religious devotees and philosophical scholars, but also modern visual artists, serving as a loose starting point for everything from holiday favorites (It’s a Wonderful Life) to melancholy romantic comedies (Defending Your Life) to television sitcoms (The Good Place). But writer-director Edson Oda is more interested in a different question: what if that moment of reckoning came at the beginning, with the outcome determining whether you had the opportunity to exist in the first place? With this premise he lays the groundwork for Nine Days, a debut feature of extraordinary ambition and uneven execution. The fact that the film works as well as it does is attributable in no small part to the talents of lead Winston Duke, appearing in just his third film role (discounting a couple of Avengers-related cameos). As Will, the entity tasked with selecting the next human to be born on Earth, he carries the weight of not only lives but lifetimes on his shoulders — those he does not choose will never know the miracle of life, but the one he does may become all too familiar with humanity’s capacity for cruelty. Duke captures the agony of such a choice almost entirely via his mannerisms; Will’s deep empathy is communicated through the way he obsessively watches a television screen, through the time he spends building an intricate manifestation of a desire, through the effort he puts into merely listening. His performance is so often an exercise in captivating stillness that when the emotional outbursts do come, they matter that much more. The supporting cast all have their moments to shine, particularly Zazie Beetz and Tony Hale as candidates undergoing the interview process, but unfortunately Duke’s Will is the only character in the film that feels truly developed. Perhaps this is by design, with the roles meant to evoke a sense of tabula rasa, but on the screen it plays as too one-note; each candidate is seemingly representative of a single trait, making character development inherently impossible and limiting our ability to care too much about their eventual fates. It certainly doesn’t help that so much of the film is devoted to sitting with these archetypal ciphers as they watch faceless avatars on television screens — the movie too often feels overly enamored of its own analog aesthetic, returning over and over again to sequences of home movie-style VHS recordings whose thematic resonance is outweighed by the negative impact these scenes have on the pacing of a film that lets restlessness set in much too early. However, despite the inability to sustain its core concept over two-plus hours, Nine Days does manage to shape some of its best ideas into moments of true beauty and power, including a stunningly emotional sequence near the end (unsurprisingly anchored by Duke) that on its own nearly makes the whole endeavor worthwhile. Even as the movie spins its wheels, testing the limits of its audience’s patience, it maintains a sense of promise that at any moment tedium could be punctuated by a grace note that is moving and perhaps even profound — and in that regard, maybe the film through its own laborious contours manages to represent a certain slice of the human experience after all.