In Pixar's Soul, a jazz musician dies and, through a series of mishaps of his own making, ends up in “The Great Before.” This is the realm where souls are assigned to the bodies of newborns. He ends up trying to help one particular soul, who has never been placed because of a surly attitude and lack of "spark." That's an animated family comedy. Nine Days is like a live-action, adult version of the same concept. Edson Oda's feature debut is very much on the meditative side, so anyone looking for a lot of overt drama may come away disappointed, but you have to admire any story willing to grapple with big ideas about life the way this one does.
Will (Us's Winston Duke) operates out of a small house quite literally in the middle of nowhere. His job is to interview and test five unborn souls over the course of nine days. At the end of that time, he must decide which one of them will go on to become human. The applicants include the sarcastic Alexander (Tony Hale) and Kane (Bill Skarsgard), a guy who views violence as a potentially viable means of solving problems.
The one who intrigues -- and frightens -- Will the most is Emma (Zazie Beetz), a soul not easily categorized, thanks to a free-spirited personality. Her answers to questions are never predictable, and she possesses a vibrancy that unnerves him. An obsessively self-controlled entity, Will seems afraid of how she unintentionally forces him to confront the element from his past that has made him so outwardly emotionless.
That idea is at the heart of Nine Days. Life is supposed to be joyous, yet here's a man either incapable of experiencing joy or refusing to, and he's the one deciding which soul will get to live. The movie isn't so much about which of the five candidates gets the job so much as about whether Will can embrace the fundamental idea of life again. Through his interactions with other characters, the film explores how people respond to the inherent ups and downs of existence -- how some maintain basic optimism while others block out the good and dwell on the bad.
Heavy subject matter, no doubt. Nine Days makes you contemplate its ambitious themes via smart writing, but also through Duke's precise, nuanced performance. Even as Will holds everything in, the actor makes sure we know what he's feeling at every turn. It's a tour de force performance of minimalism, made even more impressive by the final scene, which offers catharsis in a most unexpected manner.
The supporting cast members are all excellent, as well, helping in their individual ways to illuminate the characters' effect on Will's personal journey. Nine Days' contemplative nature is something you have to be prepared for. An additional element to provide extra dramatic juice somewhere in the middle would have compensated for a tone that occasionally feels a touch lethargic. Get on the picture's wavelength, though, and you're certain to be impacted by its poignance.
out of four
Nine Days is rated R for language. The running time is 2 hours and 4 minutes.