REVIEW

Review: Nine Days is writer-director Edson Oda's impressive debut

Nine Days (M, 124 minutes)

4 stars

Building new worlds and creating new rules might just be worth contemplating in these strange times. Edson Oda, a young Japanese-Brazilian writer-director, has gone big and bold in this sci-fi drama, his outstanding first film, entertaining ideas about salvaging what's good, doing away with what's bad, and striving for what is better.

Nine Days is about a man by the name of Will, who interviews souls who are candidates for life, with "what if" questions that supposedly reveal the direction they would take if they had the opportunity to live. It looks a lot like playing God.

Day in, day out, observing his protégé's progress at life, Will sits in front of a bank of television monitors in his shabby cottage, encircled by a picket fence, in the middle of a vast desert. The filmmakers selected the stunning desert locations of Utah for their shoot.

Winston Duke, left and Zazie Beetz scene from Nine Days. Picture: Wyatt Garfield

Winston Duke, left and Zazie Beetz scene from Nine Days. Picture: Wyatt Garfield

As an omniscient figure, Will is entitled to ask the questions because he has experienced life. But as to what he did with his life, besides some work in theatre, we are none the wiser. That he can yield such power is not an entirely comfortable thought.

Winston Duke, who has appeared in Marvel superhero films, appears as Will. His tall, imposing, black frame dominates the space whenever he appears, but Will has recently started to doubt himself. The death of one of his favourites, Amanda, has left him irretrievably saddened and puzzled, and he returns to his records obsessively to try to understand why she died.

Amanda was a concert violinist of prodigious talent, with her life ahead of her. So why oh why did she suddenly die while driving, in a single-car collision?

The central idea is that of souls competing for the "amazing opportunity" of life, having the chance of being born into a fruitful environment where promise will be fulfilled.

It's Will's job to find her replacement, and he sets about interviewing a fresh round of candidate souls for the role. A decision must be reached within the titular nine days.

The central idea is that of souls competing for the "amazing opportunity" of life, having the chance of being born into a fruitful environment where promise will be fulfilled.

The competing souls have to field questions, from the mundane to the more searching and diabolically testing. It's an even more disturbing scenario when one of the cruel hypotheticals involves a choice allowing the unthinkable, the death of a child.

When the interviewees challenge him, Will says that he is not the boss, just a cog in a wheel. He seems to operate like a kind of bureaucrat, on behalf of a higher power but it is nowhere to be seen.

No one else can comment on Will's decisions except the enigmatic Kyo (Benedict Wong), who was once a soul competing for life too, but he never went away. Rather than evaporate like the rest of the rejects, he hung on in there.

A blissful end awaits the souls who miss out in the competition for life. There is, at least, a fleeting compensation for candidates like Alex (Tony Hale), Mike (David Rysdahl) and Maria (Arianna Ortiz). It might be a sunny afternoon at the beach, or a cycle through quiet city streets. Something lovely to go out on.

These "dying" moments are by turns beautiful and distressing, and underline the fragility of life's precious small moments. This is when the film's intellectual premise connects at an emotional level with its characters, and its audience.

The only one of the candidates to insist on her own choice of final moment, Emma (Zazie Beetz), is rebuffed. Her vitality, energy and positive outlook is a necessary counterbalance to the film's tendency to a gloomy interiority.

It ultimately takes the challenge to Will and the power invested in him. The film's conclusion, a touch stagey, lifts the film away from its trajectory and into a new realm altogether.

It is to the credit of everyone involved in Nine Days that the film is able to carry off its strange and singular premise.

The film's mise-en-scene is brimming with post-industrial bric-a-brac - old VHS equipment, television monitors that don't exceed 64 centimetres, a Polaroid camera and more. The dated familiarity helps anchor the film's outrageous premise as do the terrific performances.

Features as bold, original, and beautiful as this don't come along that often. It is a challenging experience, but there won't be any others quite like it this year.

This story This is bold, original and beautiful first appeared on The Canberra Times.