Review: ‘Nine Days,’ starring Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale and Bill Skarsgård

September 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Winston Duke and Bill Skarsgård in “Nine Days” (Photo by Michael Coles/Sony Picture Classics)

“Nine Days”

Directed by Edson Oda

Culture Representation: Taking place in an otherworldly dimension, the dramatic film “Nine Days” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, black, Asian and Latino) representing souls who can observe humans on Earth.

Culture Clash: A “soul gatekeeper” must decide which one among five soul candidates will get to be reborn as a human on Earth. 

Culture Audience: “Nine Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching thoughtful dramas about what spiritual life could look like before being born.

Zazie Beetz in “Nine Days” (Photo by Michael Coles/Sony Picture Classics)

What if you were given the responsibility of deciding which souls could be born into humans? And what if you were one of those souls who had to be evaluated as “worthy enough” to be chosen? Those are the questions facing the main characters of writer/director Edson Oda’s feature-film directorial debut “Nine Days,” a somber-yet-hopeful meditative film about the existence of spirits in a dimension where they are chosen to either continue their lives in a human being or disappear entirely.

It’s a heavy burden for anyone to bear, so it’s no wonder that “soul gatekeeper” Will (played by Winston Duke) takes it so seriously, he almost never cracks a smile during the entire story. Will exists in an unnamed dimension that looks like an outpost house in a remote area, where he spends a lot of his time looking at several stacked-up TV monitors at once. (“Nine Days” was actually filmed in Utah.) Each TV monitor shows Will what’s going on at that moment in the lives of various people on Earth. The monitored people’s entire lives are recorded from birth to death on VHS tapes (yes, you read that right), so Will has a massive archive of people’s histories.

There’s one monitored person in particular who has a profound effect on Will. She is a 28-year-old successful violinist named Amanda Grazzini (played by Lisa Starrett), who was a child prodigy and is described as “emotionally strong.” That’s why it’s a shock to Will when Amanda commits suicide by driving her car into a wall. This tragic death happens early on in the movie and is the catalyst for what happens in the rest of the story, so it’s not really spoiler information.

Amanda’s suicide sends the usually unflappable Will into an emotional tailspin. With her soul having left Earth, Will now has to decide which soul will be born on Earth, to replace Amanda’s life that was taken away. Five soul candidates arrive at the house and are interviewed separately by Will.

Each candidate is evaluated for nine days. All of the candidates are told that after this nine-day evaluation process, anyone who isn’t chosen will then cease to exist. Each rejected candidate gets to decide on a personal ultimate fantasy that will get fulfilled as a sendoff.

The five candidates are:

  • Mike (played by David Rysdahl), a serious soul who is prone to worry a lot.
  • Maria (played by Arianna Ortiz), a shy soul who’s somewhat afraid of trying new things.
  • Kane (played by Bill Skarsgård), an arrogant soul who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else.
  • Alexander (played by Tony Hale), a wisecracking soul who can be neurotic and insecure.
  • Emma (played by Zazie Beetz), a “free spirit” soul who is naturally inquisitive.

Will has a friendly co-worker named Kyo (played by Benedict Wong), who is not as uptight as Will. Kyo’s job is to give his opinion to Will on whether or not Will has chosen well. Even though Will has a monumental task of deciding which souls will live and which will cease to exist, “Nine Days” makes it clear that Will is not God or some other supreme being. In fact, at one point in the story, Will describes himself as “a cog in the wheel.”

The candidates are told they must answer certain questions about what they would do when faced with certain ethical dilemmas. Will assures them that there are no right or wrong answers, but they must answer truthfully. All of the candidates except for Emma answer the questions.

Emma tells Will that she can’t answer the questions because she doesn’t know how what her answer would be in these ethical dilemmas. Emma also replies to Will’s questions with more questions. This back-and-forth conflict irritates Will, but it also intrigues him.

During this evaluation process, the candidates are encouraged to look at the TV screens to watch the lives of three people on Earth: Rick Virgil (played by Sterlin English), a 14-year-old who is being bullied; Luiza Coolin (played by Erika Vásquez), a newlywed; and Fernando Pereira (played by Álvaro Cortez), a police officer.

“Nine Days” is a richly layered film that might be too much to wade through for people who prefer more straightforward stories about life in other dimensions. The acting is solid all around, but the heart of the movie is in how Will and Emma get to know each other better. Will has a dark secret that is hinted at and eventually revealed. It explains a lot of his angst. If viewers are willing to tolerate the slow pacing of “Nine Days” and immerse themselves in this fascinating story, then they will be rewarded with seeing a movie that will inspire existential thoughts that go beyond the movie’s 124 minutes.

Sony Pictures Classics released “Nine Days” in New York City and Los Angeles on July 30, 2021. The movie’s theatrical release expanded to more U.S. cities on August 6, 2021.