A violin prodigy, some 10,300 days after her selection for life, is singled out after a rehearsal by her conductor, who compliments her performance. On another plane, Will (Winston Duke), the man who selected her for life, looks on proudly and jots a few notes down. “Nine Days,” from writer-director Edson Oda, gives him time to savor her accomplishments and us time to savor the film. The next day, she drives into a wall and dies. The tube television that Will watches from — one in a wall of many — clicks off.
Her death sends Will spinning — he was the one who picked her for life. “Nine Days” is set in a purgatorial desert too melancholic for heaven and too hopeful for hell, littered with scraps and — as we get into things — a few newborn souls vying to replace the space on Earth opened up by the violinist.
Working and living in an isolated Craftsman, Will’s job is to interview the newborn souls, putting together nine days of tasks that will whittle the list to one. Each task is an emotional high, loving or disturbing and everything in between, and so is the film. The one who makes it through all nine days (there can only be one) earns “the gift of life.”
Oda’s characters are feats themselves, usurped only by the fact that this is his debut feature. When Oda’s characters aren’t elevated by his script, they’re pulled up by the film’s talented cast, such as Alexander (Tony Hale), who’s content chilling with a beer. It’s obvious Hale, one of the few “Veep” cast members who has truly kept up with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is often adding his own comedy to evade a script that, at times, threatens to box him in, as it does some of the minor characters.
Those unfortunate characters are the ones eliminated early. One of them, Mike (David Rysdahl), is evidently too kind for the world. He’s out (in a beautiful scene filled with generosity) before the script breathes life into him, despite a few chances. Don’t confuse this with a weak script; Oda is trimming the excess, if clumsily, though his hand is forced by necessity.
“Nine Days” is a character study. Oda interlocks soul and stock character to create something more, suggesting that only the souls’ amalgamation would be suitable for our world. Hale’s Alexander leads neatly into Maria (Arianna Ortiz), bubbly with a steely interior that flows into Kane (Bill Skarsgård), whose unsentimental survivalism spars with Emma’s (Zazie Beetz, indelible) humanity.
Emma is Oda’s idea of who we should aspire for, but he checks his idealism with a film rooted in reality. Emma is kind and caring — Beetz plays her with verve and flexibility — but she’s also nostalgic and idealistic. Will’s job, when he’s not battling the demons surfaced by Amanda’s death, is to decide if the well-meaning Emma can survive.
Will himself tilts strongly to his survival instincts, hiding from his past, which demands that friend Kyo (Benedict Wong) reign him back in, acting as a conscience without falling into the angel-on-the-shoulder pit. The cliche of that, in a story of souls, would be unbearable.
Emma and Kyo both make obvious Oda’s gift. “Nine Days” is utilitarian. No character is wasted; if not every one is grandly realized, they are all effective. Driving this, beyond the stunning ensemble, is a script that, along with its characters, refuses boundaries.
“Nine Days” shines, above all, in that it belongs to everything and nothing: a tearjerker, for sure, but not manipulative. It is not entirely a philosophical endeavor, but matches “The Good Place” step-for-step and, like that series, puts the adolescent ponderings of “Loki” to shame. Occasionally, Oda eats with his eyes, as “WandaVision” did, but he disguises it well.
His cloak is ambitious direction, confidently rendering a vision of life as it is and as it should be. Oda deals in soul, spirit and affection, making “Nine Days” without a doubt one of the most attentive films of the year.
Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].