Sundance 2020: “Nine Days” Provides Decent Soul Searching

Nine Days Courtesy: Sundance Institute

Edson Oda’s debut feature about a group of souls looking to be born into the real world is a great premise with pretty good execution.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.)

Tones, worldviews, inspirations both obvious and implicit—it’s notable when something juggles a medley of ideas. They signal a larger ambition even when they don’t work out. Such leads to a general rule of thumb: the farther a movie’s parts are from one another, the more conversation it’ll stimulate. Then there’s Edson Oda’s Nine Days, which, while not narratively or thematically disparate, follows suit for a while but not by the end.

That isn’t to say it’s a messy movie. It’s actually quite tidy, and that’s the largest issue for a debut film that flirts with its own perspective without fully committing to one. By trying to ground its moral and ethical quandaries in something universal, it reveals its own perspective only to undo it by the end. While steady in how it approaches each character, it maintains an objective viewpoint before procuring its own perspective—until it takes the easy way out.

Let’s not get the wrong idea, though: Nine Days works well enough. It’s an accessible tale of the judge and his right-hand as they comb through the cynic, the idealist, the wanter, the watcher, and the optimist. Its cast is as softly emotive as its setting is sterile, and as an unlikely mix of Hiroshi Teshigahara, Franz Kafka, and yes, even Garry Marshall, its heart is in the right place. It’s only once it tries moving that heart from chest to sleeve that it turns into a different movie, but by that point, it’s gotten enough right.

It’s the premise and those aforementioned archetypes that give the film enough goodwill. Speaking of which, Winston Duke plays a man named Will, a stolid type living in a small house out in an abandoned salt mine. His living room has a wall of CRT-TVs stacked four rows high where he combs through strangers’ lives, depicted on VHS tapes as first-person videos. And while his purpose seems opaque, his confidant and assistant, Kyo (Benedict Wong), sheds some light on it.

A bunch of wandering souls comes in for one-on-one interviews. Will provides them with thought experiments and moral dilemmas and, if he sees them as fit, includes them in the opportunity to be born into the real world. The others will disappear forever. There’s Kane (Bill Skarsgård), the cynic; Alex (Tony Hale), the idealist; Mike (David Rysdahl), the wanter; Maria, the watcher (Arianna Ortiz); and Emma, the optimist (Zazie Beetz). But given that Will himself is a soul who was never born, it starts to weigh on him more than it should.

[A]s an unlikely mix of Hiroshi Teshigahara, Franz Kafka, and yes, even Garry Marshall, its heart is in the right place. It’s only once it tries moving that heart from chest to sleeve that it turns into a different movie.

The most apparent issue is probably a slight excess of characters. There’s no real need for both a wanter and watcher type, and Oda’s script doesn’t delineate between the two as much as he ought to. Otherwise, Nine Days moves swiftly at first to introduce each archetype. Jeff Betancourt and Michael Taylor cut between interviews, questions, and answers, and the screenplay establishes its pentagonal ethics with ease.

It slows down quite a bit afterward, which, paired with its two-hour runtime, runs a bit thin. Thankfully, it picks up once Will starts thinning out the candidates one by one, and it’s around here that it further fleshes itself. There’s a recurring bit in which Will, before jettisoning someone, offers to recreate their fondest memory from their previous life, and it helps deepen their wants and needs. It yields its most beautiful moments, most of them having an endearingly rough quality to how Will and Kyo carry them out.

All the while, Wyatt Garfield shoots the house with a dusty aesthetic that, while overbearing at a few points, does decent work at a sense of stagnancy. (The biggest issue is that Garfield forgoes the varied hues he used in Gabriel and Diane.) It’s the cast that does the best work, though, with standout work from Duke and Beetz. The former’s stoicism works all the better when he loses his tempter while the latter brings a sense of remorse to a role that could have felt too on-the-nose.

Nine Days sneaks up on the viewer at its best moments, not the least of which come from the shifts in what morals it aligns itself with. There’s that Teshigahara-tinged fatalism, that Kafkaesque decay that complements the growth. Alas, Oda has a romantic mind, and it comes to a head at the end. It’s a movie that forgoes catharsis before falling back on one anyways, and the climax here is much too on the nose to fit with what came before it.

Maybe it’s a testament to the cast that it works at all. It’s so obvious in its message that it leaves the audience on an ironically low note, but there’s something here: a sensitivity, a kindness, a patience. Oda appears to have made the movie he wanted to, and that’s mostly for the better.

Nine Days is playing in the U.S. Drama section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

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