'Nine Days': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Not for everyone, but one of the more striking directorial debuts of recent years.

Winston Duke stars in Edson Oda's feature debut about a man tasked with interviewing souls for the chance to be sent out into life.

It's a rare occasion when a first-time filmmaker embraces the metaphysical, and rarer still when said director does so without embarrassing pretentiousness, but Edson Oda thinks big and mostly pulls it off in Nine Days. Uneven but stunningly crafted and concerned with nothing less than who deserves a space on planet Earth, this is a carefully thought-out original creation that some will argue belongs in an art installation sooner than in a commercial cinema. Whichever the case, this is a special, one-of-a-kind work that announces a significant talent.

A Brazilian-born USC graduate who has directed numerous corporate projects and music videos, Oda shows from the first scene that he has a great eye for fashioning images. What he does with his talent places him in a rarified zone where art-making and philosophical speculation merge, and where adventurous young viewers will make a point of finding it.

Unspecific religious vibrations course through the proceedings, which are set in a handsome old house in the desert bedecked with all manner of video and other electrical equipment. The imposing man in charge, Will (Winston Duke), helped at times by older colleague Kyo (Benedict Wong), has an interesting job: deciding who will be born and sent out into whatever exists beyond the desert. What authority gave him this task is not stated.

There is no real-world context for this method of propagating the species, no known criteria, no societal, political or geographic backdrop to any of it. But as one soul dies, another must be admitted to the realm of the living, with Will as the arbiter. Physically powerful (Duke played M'Baku in Black Panther), he is also mentally dexterous and intimidating; it will take someone special to meet this judge's approval and pass go.

It can't be said that the five aspirants to be born have overwhelmingly impressive credentials, and Will is both well prepared and not disposed to make it easy for them. There are merciless challenges to be met, questions to be answered, tasks to be mastered. To be born is a great privilege, not a right, and one by one they must convince Will of their worth or face the far more likely prospect of never being born.

Although the candidates are nicely played by Bill Skarsgard, David Rysdahl, Arianna Ortiz and Tony Hale, the dramaturgy starts wearing down around the one-hour mark and doesn't entirely revive until Will eventually — and, it's pretty clear from the start, inevitably — settles his attention on the one good prospect who's been there all along, Emma (the irrepressible Zazie Beetz).

The young woman's alert, life-embracing attitude is much the antithesis of Will's challenging, gate-keeper personality, enough so that it begins to unnerve him. There is no sexual component to the relationship, at least nothing that's acknowledged — this is not a realm in which sexuality ever rears its head or where people are created the old-fashioned way — and yet Emma's presence unsettles Will to no end; it represents a tangible threat to the boss' authority and the system of advancement into the real world that he has refined and implemented.

For all the film's intellectual pretensions, both good and bad, Duke's great gravitas and Beetz' spontaneity lift the film partway out of its quasi-spiritual morass; they provide a hint of the real, of a beating heart, even if the drama itself exists in a parched desert realm devoid of actual life (the film was shot in Utah).

Nine Days distinguishes itself in a way that very few films do today, not just in the sense of creating a unique world to operate within, complete with hierarchies and gizmos and heroes and villains — countless sci-fi/fantasy films do that — but by fashioning a niche zone of limited known range in which the unborn must demonstrate why they deserve to be born. It's a disturbing notion in a good way, a provocative one that suggests that you have to deserve your right to live in the world.

Oda is not anywhere near a literalist in either a political or philosophical sense; rather, this is a fantasy about technology and diminished human might and influence that has been dramatized in a highly focused and individualistic way. The writer-director's special talent is on view at every moment here, and those who embrace it will be keenly interested to see whether he moves more toward the mainstream or remains devoted to termite-like burrows into the odd corners of human endeavor.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

Production: Juniper Productions, Mandalay Pictures, Nowhere, Macro Media, The Space Program

Cast: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, David Rysdahl, Arianna Ortiz, Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgard, Perry Smith, Geraldine Hughes

Director: Edson Oda

Screenwriter: Edson Oda

Producers: Jason Michael Berman, Mette-Marie Kongsved, Laura Tunstall, Matthew Linder, Datari Turner

Executive producers: Charles D. King, Kim Roth, Gus Deardoff, Kellon Akeem, Renee Frigo, Beth Hubbard, Trevor Groth, Winston Duke, Caroline Connor, Will Raynor, Mark C. Stevens, Kwesi Collisson, George A. Loucas

Director of photography: Wyatt Garfield

Production designer: Dan Hermansen

Costume designer: Fernando Rodriguez

Editors: Michael Taylor, Jeff Betancourt

Music: Antonio Pinto

124 minutes