The cinematic realm has covered the sanctity of hermithood in eras past. Characters of a quiet eccentricity idle in their life’s purpose but never starved on determination. Kane, Forrester, and Wonka are among them. Add Winston Duke’s primarily stoic Will to that list as he oversees the recruitment of newfound souls. To ready them for the rigors of living, whether first time or for a refresh. And to make them perhaps less scared of an afterlife still to be scripted. That’s the very blueprint first-time feature director Edson Oda runs with, in his quietly bleak sci-fi-esque fantasy Nine Days. And when the plans make sense, this plot gels to an almost unexpected level.
Will’s role in life appears simple and mundane enough, equal to a hiring manager whittling down candidates for a proper life well spent. What complicates the issue is his penance for living alone, in the outskirts of a desolate wasteland. Whether that adds any apocalyptic undertones may be best left to the viewer. In his research, he sits among a wall of televisions, recording long swaths of events from figurative raw feeds from multiple human perspectives to VHS. His mind is routinely clouded by a mild obsession with Amanda, a burgeoning violin impresario. Constructing the memories of her life piece by piece nearly consumes his character arc, as he proceeds with his hiring process. The lucky one who survives will join Will’s observance strategy before long.
Among the candidates, we find lively party animal Alexander (Tony Hale), secretive sketch artist Mike (David Rhysdal), free spirit Emma (Zazie Beetz), burned-out city worker Maria (Arianna Ortiz), and cautiously pessimistic Kane (Bill Skarsgård). Each of them spends no more than the titular week and a third, hours at a time, as Will, accompanied by fellow arbiter and friend Kyo (Benedict Wong) ask investigative questions regarding content viewed on the TV wall, gathering a sense for their psychological makeup.
The group is nothing short of confused by the regimen, but quick to adopt its rules, with Emma being the most inquisitive and outgoing. Beetz (Deadpool 2), a Marvel movie vet just like Wong (Doctor Strange) and Duke (Black Panther) before her, hyperextends her natural optimist nature to embrace the placid weirdness this program delivers. She’s a treasure on-screen whilst digging into Will’s own mind, plagued by the life he once lived, one lacking in love and appreciation. He’s all too quick to hide his past behind a mask of professional ethics, but Emma’s determined to chip away at that wall, just as his defenses weaken by his fixation on Amanda and the tragedy around her.
Amid the glossy sheen of its fantasy element (in no time does it ever come off as whimsical, thankfully), seeing these characters breaking beyond comforts is like writing down tells in a poker match. The process of elimination factors greatly on exposing each’s emotional strengths, and their tolerance to inhibition, building inventive, exciting performances that don’t ever grow stale. Alexander swings about trying to make friends, unable to conceal his short fuse. Hale’s sense of comic timing plays to his advantage here. Skarsgard’s Kane is the tougher nut, balancing a kind soul with the tension of a cynic, but he maneuvers through without fault. Wong’s Kyo interjects frequently as a welcome voice of reason, keeping Will on a focused track whenever his mind and heart either wander off or disconnect to separate avenues.
But Duke remains deeply at the front and center, sufficiently at the heart of Oda’s tale as it transcends mere science and fantasy. Scratching beyond its surface structure is a man who is equal parts Wonka and Michael Scott, Nine Days requires its audiences to breathe deep, think even deeper, to question mortality in a state where it’s not yet determined, being written as the process moves along. And certainly, to recognize where we stumble on our own quality of life. Oda counters that some aspects can’t be predicted early; they never can be. But the rhythms, the very machinations, and the alterations we could never plan for could at least be instilled under the proper learning environment. That is something the partly placid Will does learn for himself along this calm, composed trail of self-association.
We’re certainly rooting for him, even as we don’t quite know who to root for between the candidates. It’s more a matter of wondering who can last the longest versus casting a predetermined vote for a singular winner. With how well Will accommodates the participants whether they survive or not (all but one will leave with one last wonderful memory before departing their shared limbo), there’s no clear loser. Only lessons learned, and an emotional structure for how to respond in times of sacrifice and regret, to handle such situations in a manner healthily and maturely. And to evolve from heartbreak, as Will must, to overcome his fixation on Amanda and let go of his troubled past. Is it possible to let go of someone we can love but never had the chance to know on a personal level? Will’s a testament to the difficulty in play, deepening the element of mystery. Even with context visible, would any of us remember someone on vague terms? With that maturity, and a respectful dignity also, that too is proven possible while any one of us await our chance to be chosen.
Accentuated perfectly by Antonio Pinto’s (Joe Bell) string-intensive score, and Wyatt Garfield’s (Beatriz at Dinner) poignant, often heart-stopping photography, Nine Days makes every moment, scene, line count right until a sudden cut to black disconnects us from the moment, leaving us to further ponder a future undetermined, especially if it hadn’t already been lived. Life usually starts the same way, ends the same way, but interpreted too differently for any one path to be correct. In the most meditative form possible, welcomely so, Oda insists upon the viewer to reflect, and eventually embrace, humanity’s one shred of sustained similarity. It could be what defines our mortality by virtue of greatness or pointlessness. And for Oda, whose eye for story leaps beyond the norm to hit the heart and brain on a provoked level, there’s much greatness to be spoken for on the anxious quells of merely existing, followed by thriving. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
Nine Days opens in Seattle, Bellevue, Lynnwood, Tacoma, and Tukwila this weekend; rated R for language; 124 minutes.