Sundance 2020: Nine Days review – Winston Duke stars in this magnetic, sweeping, high-concept drama

4.5

Summary

Edson Oda’s directorial debut Nine Days features subtle performances, fascinating ideas, and unanswerable questions somewhere between life and death.

What if life wasn’t a preordained right? This question lies in the center of Edson Oda’s Nine Days, his feature debut filled with Terrence Malick-esque imagery and uncertainty. Starring Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz, Nine Days follows Will (Duke) as he interviews a group of non-living souls, including Emma (Beetz), for a chance to be alive.

The interview process takes nine days, each one filled with more personal questions, more role-playing, and more time spent watching those already living. The culmination of these interviews becomes a poetic, meditative film that grows in interest over its 124-minute runtime. Oda’s big ideas never fully materialize, but the effect stays the same: Nine Days makes you think about the wholeness of life itself and the fragility of being alive. As the film follows each of its candidates, including Alexander (a fantastic Tony Hale) Kane (Bill Skarsgård), and Emma, the characters and audience see more home videos of people’s lives on Earth, those that Will picked in the past. Will’s picks struggle with all sorts of daily issues, including bullying, crime, and depression.

Will himself deals with tragedy throughout the film, as he continually watches the video of one of his favorite picks seemingly commit suicide. He watches old videos, memories of her childhood, her recitals, and her time leading up to her decision. The problem: he didn’t see it coming. He deals with his own frustration and sadness as he’s interviewing the possible new lives, whittling the field down one by one.

Two of the more powerful moments in the film happen during this process. Each time Will eliminates a soul, he gives them an opportunity to recreate a moment they saw while watching those already living. For one, this moment is a walk up to the shore on a beach, and for another, it’s a bike ride down the street. Oda crafts these instances with such care and beauty that they become powerful emotional markers throughout the film. Additionally, at the end of this process, the final act of the film just increases its magnitude. The final moments become the film’s most powerful, and Oda’s script proves to be much more than just a Malick homage, and much more a signifier of a writer/director with a distinct style and much more to say in the coming years.

Winston Duke commands the screen with a subtle performance that only grows in size. Beetz matches him step for step, and Tony Hale gives a surprisingly fantastic performance. The supporting cast lives up to Oda’s script, and these performances should be in the conversation over the next twelve months.

Nine Days asks big questions, deciding not to necessarily answer them, but leave them sitting as the credits roll. For many, it will wash over them, a sweeping achievement, especially for a first-time director. The film constantly keeps you in a state of thought-provocation and gives you a reason to continue to consider its implications days after you watch Duke light up the screen. What if we interviewed for the opportunity to be alive? The question and the film will hopefully make us all a bit more thoughtful about dying, but more importantly, about living.

This review was filed from Sundance 2020. Check out all of our coverage from the festival.


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Michael Frank

Based in Brooklyn, NY, Michael is a regular critic for Ready Steady Cut and also writes for Cinema Sentries, The Film Experience and Film Inquiry.

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