Movie Review: A Little August Existential Angst? “Nine Days”

“Nine Days” is the sort of indie drama that makes you appreciate the wonder that is the actor’s heart as much as the actor’s art. A collective of rising stars and famous supporting players took a flier on first-time feature director Edson Oda’s dive into existential theatricality, and their presence made the movie a reality.

It’s the sort of thoughtful, human-condition-pondering picture that makes a head-snapping contrast to normal summer cinema fare. Of course, this isn’t a “normal summer,” so all bets are off.

And I can’t decide if I like this or even appreciate what Oda was trying to do. But perhaps by the end of the review, at the bottom of the page, just above the as-yet-undecided “star rating,” I’ll know, as will you.

It’s about a seaside desert safe house for souls auditioning for life on Earth. Candidates meet with an exacting interviewer (Winston Duke of “Us” and “Black Panther”), someone who talks up their chance at “the amazing opportunity of life.” But they have nine days of tests and exercises ahead of them and must pass muster with Will, this pedantic fussbudget whose top collar is always buttoned, a careful man who wears not just suspenders, but a belt, too.

Will monitors the lives of those he “passed” via a wall of old cathode ray tube TVs, seeing their lives through their lives. He keeps meticulous notes, and videotapes key moments. And all of this he files, in this house with filing cabinets that must hold infinity itself.

He isn’t the only one doing this, or interviewing new souls ready to be assigned to life, or rejected, in which case they’ll cease to exist. But he is the “star” of this system, a bit unorthodox, as his boss/friend (Benedict Wong) admits, yet thorough.

Among those he interviews in this latest group are sensitive Mike (David Rysdahl), more sensitive Maria (Arianna Ortiz), blunt Kane (Bill Skarsgård), callously glib Alexander (Tony Hale) and oh-so-thoughtful Emma (Zazie Beetz).

Over those days, they watch human life play out on those TVs and keep journals. Will puts them through role playing exercises, serving up moral and ethical dilemmas of a “Sophie’s Choice” sort, barking “What would YOU do?” in each situation.

“I’ll start a story, you’ll tell me how it ends,” he offers, jotting down every answer, deciding everyone’s fate, but “kind” enough to — as consolation — offer the failed souls a simulation of the “life” based on a moment they saw on one of the screens that they’re watching, one that was “truly meaningful.”

Everybody plays along, more or less seriously. But Emma is given to answering questions with counter-questions, puncturing the premise of Will’s “test” and, to be frank, the premise of the movie as well. Or they would if her responses generated any dramatic heat at all.

“I’m afraid I can’t answer that question.”

The “tests” don’t progress in difficulty or anything else. Winston’s quiz questions are awfully arbitrary, as are his let’s-get-real “punishments.”

“This is pain, and what you’re feeling right now is nothing compared to what people feel when they’re alive.”

The story’s arc has to do with letting go of loss, moving on from mistakes and finding a way to “live” the life one’s been gifted with. Will was once alive, and he needs to learn this as much as anyone he’s passing judgment on.

Oda gives the film a marvelous mystery as it opens, zeroing in on Winston’s solitary work in this Purgatory-by-the-Sea setting. But as that evaporates and the film settles into the “rules” and logistics of the work, I lost interest.

The “deserve to be alive” premise is wholly undercut by the unpleasant arbitrariness of the lives we see play out — a playful childhood leading to a musical career, then death, or bullying that invites interviewee suggestions of fighting back or passively just taking whatever life dishes out.

That in itself is intriguing, the idea that “Would we choose to be born if we had enough information to make an informed decision?”

Hale, playing a blend of distracted smarm and contempt, stands out in the cast. Beetz is, at most, mildly interesting as “the questioning one.” Skarsgård’s brittle character seems to fly in the face of the viewer’s sense of who passes and who fails and Duke’s Will never escapes the confines of being a “type,” emotionally shut-off after his one shot at life, traumatized by a “star” selection who died too soon.

Whatever each actor saw in her or his character that made them sign on, the profound (ish) speeches and musings didn’t do enough for me in terms of illuminating the human condition or engaging me in the story.

It’s all a tad dreamy, which seems to go with that “existential” territory. But thinking of all the films that have covered similar ground, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” made us cry, “Truman Show” made its poignant points with humor and “Waking Life” mesmerized and touched and connected, albeit at arm’s length.

“Nine Days” made me feel nothing save for the passing of time.

MPA Rating: R for language (profanity)

Cast: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Bill Skarsgård, Ariana Ortiz,
David Rysdahl and Tony Hale

Credits: Scripted and directed by Edson Oda. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 2:03

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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