Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Nine Days played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, just before everything went down, and a lot of people liked it there and have been talking about it since—mostly glowingly, with a measure of the “I hope this movie doesn’t get lost in the COVID shuffle” spirit. That is indeed tough timing for the film, and I wish it luck in finding an audience. It’s carefully made by writer-director Edson Oda (his feature debut), is very pleasing to look at, and features a dexterous cast doing well-judged work.
I’m sorry to say that I am unconvinced. In some very basic ways, Nine Days triggered my most skeptical sensors, which is a shame, because the movie is about getting past a certain kind of pessimism and plugging into hope. Yet here I am, not buying it.
What it’s about: In a kind of reversal of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life, we arrive at a place that appears to be some sort of waiting station for human existence. A group of people (pre-people, to be more precise) gather for the space of nine days to learn whether they will be selected for “vacancies” in the living world—that is, to enter the bodies of some earthly person. The selector is Will (Winston Duke, from Us), a quiet giant in sweater vests and gold wire-rimmed glasses. He lives in a wonderful location, a pleasant bungalow plunked in the middle of a desert. We sense that Will has been, shall we say, resigned for some time, possibly since his own experience as a person. But he is especially sour lately, as a particular young woman that he selected some years ago has committed suicide without warning.
Will knows this because he watches a bank of television sets, using VHS machines to catch up on the lives he is monitoring. (I have to say, this is one spot where streaming seems like a definitively superior option.) And why is he monitoring these lives? I don’t know. One of the many unanswered questions in Oda’s scenario is why Will—and presumably the other monitors like him—are scanning their TVs. And how, exactly, would anyone find the hours to keep tabs on all this action? The film expects us to suspend disbelief for its sci-fi set-up, and I am generally happy to do that, but there is a lot to be mystified by in this construct.
One conceit that seems downright cruel: Will tells the failed auditioners that they haven’t made the cut, and will simply vanish into the ether without ever becoming persons. Couldn’t he have just, I don’t know, let them vanish? They’d never know the difference. Instead, Will makes a point of creating a little cherished fantasy moment for each of them, before shoving them off to morph into thin air—another concept that echoes After Life, and maybe the assisted-suicide program from Soylent Green.
The film’s mood is admirably quiet, sometimes verging on the enervated. Benedict Wong adds much-needed humor as Will’s associate, a more human presence than our muted protagonist. The would-be souls are led by Zazie Beetz, who thankfully steers clear of the clichéd possibilities of her role, and Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, David Rysdahl, and Arianna Ortiz. They are all moving, in their different ways, as is Antonio Pinto’s score.
Still, the film’s pre-ordained design, and the hopelessly sentimental climax, left me unmoved. And the very ending, with is reliance on stirring poetry to win its case, raises even more questions—although at this point I’m not interested enough in the answers.
Nine Days opens in a collection of Seattle-area theaters this weekend.
August 6, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.