With NINE DAYS, we are offered a metaphysical cosmology that reconciles why there is evil in the world with a need to believe that someone or something, somewhere, is watching over us and cares about what he or she or it sees. It is a devilishly complicated question, but filmmaker Edson Oda tackles it with poetic grace mixed with a bittersweet melancholy. He also maintains an air of mystery.
The premise reveals itself gradually as we absorb how Will (Winston Duke) spends time in his isolated beachfront cottage in front of multiple televisions, the kind with massive tubes, watching video tapes of people’s lives from their point of view. Will is taking notes as his VCRs record every moment, big and small, of their lives, reacting with professional detachment until one of them, a violin prodigy on her way to play a concerto is killed in a car crash under suspicious circumstances. He’s not alone when it happens. Kyo (Benedict Wong), his professional advisor and personal friend, is there, too, in order to see the performance, and, after the accident, offer consolation and the observation that the next day will be a busy one for Will.
On the morrow, six candidates for a life on earth arrive at Will’s isolated arts-and-crafts cottage one at a time. He will be evaluating them over the course of nine days in order to choose a replacement for the violinist, whose screen has gone blank. The candidates, though all adults of various ages, are actually conscious entities only a few hours old, and all eager for the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be alive, as Will once was.
Using the idiom of a job interview, each candidate is put through a series of tests, from picking their most and least favorite moments from what they see on Will’s screens, to deciding what action to take in a hypothetical, and impossible, situation involving life and death.
The candidates represent a cross-section of humanity, from the sensitive artist Mike (David Rysdahl) who doesn’t think is talent is worth sharing, to Emma (Zazie Beetz), as the only candidate to show up late, and who asks to choose her own name rather than have Will assign her one. She’s also the only one to question everything, including why Will won’t eat a peach, the which she does with great relish, even though in this place there is no such thing as hunger, but there is eating. It makes her stand out from the others, and putting Will on his guard about her, while charming Kyo, who increasingly chafes at not being able to make the final decision about who will earn the right to life.
Oda makes each of the candidates appealing, yet also somehow innately flawed. Even Alexander (Tony Hale in a masterfully poignant performance), who presents himself as a sweet guy eager to please only to unravel into anger and pettiness, fails to put us off entirely, so carefully is his humanity conceived by Oda and portrayed by Hale. That only one will be selected while the others are doomed to non-existence thus becomes a wrenching situation. There is small comfort, but worth grasping onto, even as Will is dealing with the demons of his own incarnation and what may have been a bad choice in selecting the violinist from a previous batch of candidates. As he explains to the first candidate eliminated, it’s not the time you’ve spent as a conscious entity, it’s how you’ve spent that time. We are never told why only one can be chosen, nor why extra candidates are created, though as the story progresses, we begin to question if the process of choosing is more than a mere one-way process.
As is to be expected, there is much celebration of tiny moments, and their importance in the scheme of things, with a day on the beach or a ride through falling cherry blossoms presented as momentous occasions of both profound beauty and meaning. There is, as is also to be expected, much philosophizing about the meaning of life. Yet, the latter is never pedantic, and with Will taking the loss of his violinist too much to heart, takes on a very personal cast. Even if those watching and caring are neither omnipotent nor omniscient, there is a comfort in a universe that is not disinterested.
NINE DAYS does not presume to give us all the answers to time and space, but it does posit, without judgement and without pretention, what it means to live meaningfully, even in a state that is neither alive nor dead.