It’s admirable that filmmakers are trying to tackle life’s massive, apparently unanswerable questions. It takes courage to contemplate that yawning void. It’s happening a lot these days; Pixar’s “Soul” and A24’s “The Green Knight” are the most recent.
But while the attempts are admirable, what of the results? What are the filmmakers’ intentions? Is it to nail the exact process whereby, as in the case of “Soul,” souls are selected to incarnate as humans on earth? To provide food for thought? It would have to be the latter, right? Because who really knows how this stuff works?
While “Nine Days” (filmmaker Edson Oda’s debut feature) is allegorical, it works fairly well in terms of adding Oda’s two cents as to how these esoteric occurrences might roughly take place. However, much like the recent “The Green Knight,” it unfortunately breaks the first rule of show business: “Never be boring.” This is of course subjective.
“Nine Days” resembles “Soul” more than a little, except this is not the story of a jazz musician who falls through cracks between dimensions and realities and, trying to find his way back to earthly existence, stumbles into the (highly contrived) cartoon version of the sorting process whereby souls get reborn.
“Nine Days” similarly contains the notion that a soul must have specific qualifications in order to be granted the opportunity for birth. “Soul” was superior in that its contrived birth-selection process served as a framework to tell a fun story, whereas “Nine Days” appears to be attempting to lay claim to an actual metaphysical process. Albeit by using artifices such as a guy (Winston Duke, unrecognizable from his role as the bombastic M’Baku in “Black Panther”) in a clapboard house in the middle of the desert sitting all day looking at a bank of 1980s TVs and VCRs, and watching VHS videos nonstop to see who’s got the incarnation goods.
This idea of the curtain being rolled back, Oz-like, on a rather mundane, workaday explanation of highly esoteric and ethereal occurrences is a common theme in movies. It can “help” to explain things in a rudimentary way, but always runs the risk of being uninspiring and … kind of sad: Like, really? That’s it? That’s how all that glory happens?
Will, Selector of Souls
So this guy Will is occasionally visited by a friend named Kyo (Benedict Wong), but mostly he’s monk-like. Will’s in there all day screening candidates for earthly existence. Apparently he’s not even particularly qualified; he got the job by merely having incarnated once. As opposed to Kyo who’s never incarnated.
Will also watches tapes of the lives of souls he green-lit for life. One of his favorites, a successful concert violinist named Amanda, commits suicide. This rocks Will’s world. Of course, what Will’s world actually is, is what we’re trying to figure out here. But, you know—why in this strange, fairly emotionless in-between place, is he freaking out? Anyway, in addition to rocking Will’s otherworldly world and getting him to start contemplating the meaning of life, why Amanda killed herself, and how he missed the clues—he now, amidst his devastation, has to pick a replacement for her.
See, right there, that’s like five million assumptions and permutations-combinations of contrived explanations of esoteric goings-on which necessitate contrived logical outcomes, all of which are kind of mind-bogglingly random.
But anyway, there are five candidates: Alex (Tony Hale), a nervous fellow who prefers to stick his head in the sand regarding life’s inconveniences and would rather just chill and have a beer with Will; Maria (Arianna Ortiz), a mild-mannered woman who warms to Will; Kane (Bill Skarsgard, the terrifying clown Pennywise from “It”) who’s got traditional manly approaches to the morally challenging hypothetical situations Will demands they all respond to; Mike (David Rysdahl), a sensitive artistic type; and Emma (Zazie Beetz), who manages to side-step all attempts to categorize her.
Of these five, only one will be chosen. They have nine days to show their mettle. Those not chosen will return to what’s known in Eastern religions as the “primordial chi” (chi or Qi is otherwise called “life energy,” as in, rocks don’t have chi, but plants do, because plants grow).
But before they disappear forever, Will has them write down a life experience they would have most liked to have lived, and he will do his best to kindly recreate it for them, via methods similar to how, in the early days of cinema, the sound effects for someone walking on a beach was a guy stomping around in a sandbox with some other guys pointing microphones at his feet.
B+ for Effort
“Nine Days” will have you thinking about the meaning of life, certainly, but also, similar to Thornton Wilder’s classic play “Our Town,” considering the tragedy of not living each moment to its fullest. It further questions whether human beings are inherently good or bad.
“Nine Days” is most likely to appeal to those who subconsciously prefer having the great philosophical questions remain unanswerable, and who greet all attempts at such explanations with a cheerful “Interesting!” Anyone looking for more traditional, viscerally engaging storytelling is going to find the experience on the dull side. Like, very much so. Except for Will’s rousing beach-monologue at the end after two hours spent in a dingy, shadow-filled bachelor pad. From an acting perspective, it’s a thing of beauty—the man went to the Yale School of Drama, after all.
As to the current spate of movies attempting to explain human existence and how it all goes down, I’m of the opinion that anyone, provided they put in a metric ton of reading spread over decades, will find there’s a blueprint that emerges. Exactly like the work of Joseph Campbell, who searched across a wide spectrum of human recorded knowledge from vastly differing cultures. He found that archetypes hove into sight. The exact same cultural myths and legends appear in New Guinea, Siberia, the Congo, the Amazon rain-forest, Great Britain, and anywhere on earth—and are told in exactly the same way.
I like the idea that the big questions of life are like a jigsaw puzzle that’s one mile wide by one mile long, and that it’s possible to put that puzzle together, but it’ll take a whole lifetime. But it can be done. For some, it happens faster than others. However, right at the end, there will be a few pieces permanently missing, which represent the inevitable leap of faith. But with due diligence, and when 99.9 percent of that mile-wide puzzle is put together, the shapes of those missing pieces can be seen and known by their negative spaces.
In other words, all the great mystics, druids, shamans, seers, gurus, clairvoyants, lamas, sages, saints, prophets, and wise men who claimed to see things with spiritual vision, they might hail from New Guinea, Siberia, the Congo, the Amazon rain-forest, or Great Britain … but they’re all describing exactly the same things. And so from that blueprint we can get a sense of what happens in the after-life and pre-life and “see” what those processes will look like, even though (like the missing puzzle pieces) we can’t yet personally see them with these human flesh sensory organs.
And if you don’t feel like doing all that corroborative reading—but you are someone who’s begun putting the mile-wide puzzle together, you could do worse than watch “Nine Days.”
Director: Edson Oda
Starring: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Bill Skarsgard, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale, David Rysdahl, Arianna Ortiz
Running Time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Release Date: July 30, 2021
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars