Sundance 2020: Edson Oda's 'Nine Days' is Heart-Pounding Cinema
by Alex Billington
January 28, 2020
This is it. This is the film I was waiting for. This is the one-of-a-kind masterpiece of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Nine Days is a magnificently moving, original work of art. An extraordinary film that dares us to re-examine our lives, and rediscover all the little moments that matter. It is heart-pounding cinema, soul-stirring, life-affirming cinema. It's a very ambitious, original concept that is beautifully realized by writer / director Edson Oda and his entire team on and off screen. Nine Days is one of those rare films that, to me, is perfect. There is not a single frame I would change or alter or remove. I do not need more or less. Every second of this film is perfect. Every shot important, every glance vital. It's a film that left me invigorated and exhilarated, ready to go out and tackle the world, ready to live my life with even more confidence than ever.
Nine Days borrows ideas from the bible to examine life itself; and what makes life the glorious, breathtaking adventure it is. The title a reference to the nine days is takes to interview other "souls" to be given the gift of "being alive." At the beginning we're introduced to a man named Will, played by Winston Duke, a quiet, reclusive individual living in a small house in the emptiness of a desert landscape (it was actually filmed at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah). Using piles of old school, low-fi technology like CRT TVs and VHS tapes, he spends his days quietly watching over a handful of people. He is their soul-keeper. Unable to affect them, he watches over them with the hope they live rich & fulfilling lives. Soon he is tasked with finding a new soul to be born, and starts to interview prospective candidates, asking them provocative philosophical questions.
Each of these candidates has unique qualities, aspects, and distinct personality traits. They're not cliche, but they do represent the wide range of different people on this planet. One is a beautiful artist, but persistently sad and apologetic. Will, as well, is a very unique person. He doesn't express much emotion, he seems more cynical than hopeful, and seems to have hidden trauma of his own. He also is not "the boss", as he explains when asked, he is more of a cog in the wheel. The ambiguity of the characters, the setting, and the concept itself is divinely vague - we understand what's going on and what's happening, but without everything being explained. More than anything, it's an incredibly cinematic visualization of the "purgatory" between life and death, minimalistic and slightly vintage, yet understandably representative of the entire human experience.
What moved me the most watching this film is just how deeply gratifying and thought-provoking it is, a film that honestly addresses many of life's struggles. Combined with a sublime strings-based score by Antonio Pinto, this film soars. It is, essentially, about recognizing all the little moments and building a good life no matter the struggles. I'm a sucker for these kind of life-affirming stories, and this one hits all the right notes. There's touches of Charlie Kaufman in this, and a bit of Michel Gondry, worthy comparisons in many ways but that doesn't mean this film isn't beautifully one-of-a-kind in all its own ways. It's a combination of every idea working in harmony - from the production design, the cinematography, to the immersive sound design, the passionate performances, to the soulful story enveloping it all. Artistic, philosophical cinema at its best.
I love this film - without hesitation. Winston Duke is god level phenomenal in it. He took my breath away. Director Edson Oda has immediately established himself as an intellectually ambitious, visually masterful, emotionally mature filmmaker. The film had me in full-on tears multiple times, a testament to the power of the storytelling and the filmmaking. And a testament to Oda's ability to understand the human experience, and connect every last viewer together by recognizing that we all have similar feelings and struggles and moments of happiness and sadness. One scene with a bicycle, in particular, is one of the finest examples of Oda's ability to capture the experience of life itself. It's so lovely and the way it's put together, the way the scene plays out, is unique and perfect. Life is indeed about the moments that matter, whatever they may be.