Written by: Hannah Tran | August 5th, 2021
Nine Days (Edson Oda, 2021) 2 out of 4 stars.
Japanese-Brazilian director Edson Oda’s directorial debut is exactly the type of film straight out of Sundance that typifies “the straight out of Sundance” persona. Exploring a grandiose natural landscape and philosophical beliefs regarding the purpose of life, Nine Days is a saccharine meditation on the range of the so-called “human condition.” But while it presents an interesting, albeit familiar, premise about a man who must interview five different souls to determine which can be born into a physical body on earth, it lacks the courage to ever rise beyond what is merely a moody and meager addition to a genre that already boasts a number of similar entries that accomplish the same goals with less effort.
The central conflict of Nine Days lies within the dynamic between an interviewer who has been jaded by life and an interviewee who hasn’t. But while the latter group is unmarred by the harsh realities of our world, these souls still feel like common stereotypes of it. None of them seem quite foreign enough to what we know to be truly engaging. Their most revealing interactions are when they speak with one another, but we rarely see this build into anything substantial. Instead, their lifespans reflect their dulled sense of emotions in this in-between world. And with this, whatever controversial traits written into these characters never dare to push against any of the more controversial social norms the writing plays with.
The best example of this is the contrast between two of the main souls: Emma (Zazie Beetz, Joker) and Kane (Bill Skarsgård, Villains). While Emma is an unselfishly loving and sensitive soul, Kane is a cold and quickly disillusioned one who sees the evil in the world and wants to push against it. But despite a charming performance by Beetz and the fact that the film clearly wants you to connect with Emma, Skarsgård’s limited time on screen feels more intellectually and emotionally challenging. Much like the other characters, Emma is written to be too derivative and flimsy in the greater scope of the film. And while the role of the interviewer is given by far the most range, Winston Duke (Us) rarely reaches authenticity within it. Instead, his character shifts between two modes: expressionless observation and overly-charged theatrical outbursts.
The overarching tone is reminiscent of this rigid emotional dichotomy. While the writing benefits from its brief moments of comedy, the remainder of the film suffers from always being either frustratingly slow and morbid or forcefully intense and sentimental. While the thoughtful scenery and cinematography emphasize the atmospheric beauty within each shot, it is still not enough to fill this repetitive and underwhelming cycle of emotions with something more entertaining.
What’s worse is that these aesthetic desires get in the way of the film’s ability to make relevant commentary regarding the state of society today. Beyond antiquated, the VHS tapes and staticky TV screens that define the rules of this universe feel entirely arbitrary. While the film wants to comment on the harsh reality of the world today, it lives entirely in the past. We somehow watch countless moments in the lives of the souls selected for earth and yet not once do we see a cellphone. This is just an element of what makes the screening process feel so silly. How can a process such as this effectively understand how one would act in life when it seems the filmmakers themselves are out of touch with what that life even is?
Thus, the message these filmmakers want to impart is just as inconsequential. For all the pretentious monologues, little changes within the story. At points, it even teeters into what seems entirely accidental pro-life messaging. But the essentially climaxless conclusion of the film doesn’t dare to dig into anything so clearly defined as that. Instead, it opts for more empty emotional outbursts and a false sense of connection between characters we know little of. Because it never pushes into the reality it deems so uncomfortable, Nine Days is only ever as real as the half-baked unborn souls within it.