I have thought long and hard about how to bite into this review. In fact, I have spent quite a while trying to characterize what Nine Days reminded me of and I still don’t think I have a good or sassy enough idea. All I know is that I was really looking forward to watching this and that what I ended up seeing fell vastly short of my expectations.
Truth be told, Edson Oda’s feature directorial debut has a lot of potential. It is gorgeously photographed, produced with exquisite attention to detail and populated with a handful of genuinely interesting performances from Winston Duke, Bill Skarsgård, Zazie Beetz, and Benedict Wong. Its tone and atmosphere are appropriately intriguing and Oda seems to know when to allow his actors some room to breathe or when to curtail their aspirations to ‘hog the limelight’. I guess what I am trying to articulate is that Nine Days is a great example of filmmaking form, which – come to think of it – should be expected given Oda’s commercial background and Spike Jonze’s tutelage he was fortunate to secure while working on this movie. Unfortunately, this artifice is hollow.
I don’t necessarily want to demean Oda’s thematic aspirations here because he was clearly interested in telling a story he was passionate about. Equally, my criticisms pertaining to the narrative sphere of the film have nothing to do with its plotlessness. What I have a problem with, however, is that even an atmospheric and enigmatic piece of cinematic symbolism trusted with carrying a thematic torch between the storyteller and the viewer has at least one fundamental job to do. It has to compel the viewer one way or another. Sadly, Nine Days did not do a whole lot for me.
The central conceit of the film is nevertheless rather interesting. The story takes place (almost) in its entirety in and around a secluded house which – as I understand it – exists in an ethereal plane, and where brand-new souls are summoned to compete for the opportunity to live a life on Earth. This immense power lies with Winston Duke’s character, an arbiter, who lives permanently in this house and invents gruelling tasks for new souls to take on; that is when he isn’t busy partaking in overlooking the lives of people whose souls he had chosen in the past. Therefore, it’s not hard to get your bearings around the themes and symbols upon which the entire film is built, as it more or less fits within the confines of Judeo-Christian iconography. It might be successfully assumed that Winston Duke’s character is at least partially inspired by the archetype of a guardian angel. His job is to sieve out souls who would not thrive on Earth and equip those who have what it takes with necessary survival skills.
The entire film is thus a record of how this process of selection takes place procedurally and an attempt at a conversation about the meaning of existence. Unfortunately, this conversation comes across as almost completely academic and devoid of any emotional connection that I could grab onto. It is as though the filmmaker himself wasn’t invested in the story enough to convey this passion to me as a viewer. Therefore, in spite of its elaborate conceit, layers of artifice, elaborate symbolism and visual focus, Nine Days just doesn’t add up to much. It is a lecture disguised as a story, which meanders stylistically between aspiring to a Kaufman-esque allegory and a post-Godardian exercise in self-indulgent masturbation and intellectual exhibitionism.
I cannot in good conscience endorse this film even though it is genuinely interesting to look at with its Gilliam-esque elements of production design, cinematic techniques borrowed from Spike Jonze, and an elevated premise reminiscent tonally of what Alejandro González Iñárritu would likely be interested in. This is what might happen when form takes priority over substance and when the filmmaker – overwhelmed by focusing on minutiae and technicalities – completely disregards the idea of giving his film a soul; which is quite ironic, now that I think about it.
In any case, Nine Days isn’t half the film it could have been if its story was rooted in something more than intellectual posturing. It says the right words and in the right order, but the movie as a whole doesn’t come together in the end. It is a forced peroration about the importance of living delivered in such a way that it made me doubt if the storyteller himself knew what he was talking about. In fact, it might just be that he was simply inspired to make this film after reading Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”, excerpts of which also feature as the supposedly climactic final monologue delivered by Winston Duke’s character, not out of genuine conviction to share his wisdom or joy of life with the world. Thus, the entire film is spoilt by a false note constantly and persistently droning over any melody the filmmaker wanted to produce with this story.
And that’s, my dear Reader, how I spent eight hundred words waltzing around the fact that Nine Days is a shamelessly pretentious film that desperately tries to look smart, switched on and informed by its idols. It’s Soul for blowhards, a beautifully executed yet emotionally vacuous landschaft born out of aspiration to impress, not out of overwhelming desire to create.