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Poignantly cerebral 'Nine Days' hits like a rock; easily one of 2021's best films

Winston Duke gives an understated yet commanding performance as Will, the person who interviews unborn souls for a chance at life.
Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

ST. LOUIS — What if you had nine days to decide if an unborn soul had the necessary fitness for life?

Will (Winston Duke) observes life for a living. Imagine watching home videos for a living, only the people you are watching aren't holding a camera. We're not sure if it's his job, or just a reclusive man with too much knowledge about how life works. The good thing about Edson Oda's "Nine Days" is that you don't need to know a lot about the plot in order to love the movie. Bypass the trailer or anything about the movie that includes words, and make a b-line for the start button.

This is a film experience unlike any other, where the brain is sat down next to the heart, and asked all the hard questions. That's part of Will's "job," you could say: watching and then asking questions... before watching some more. Staring at a dozen television screens, he gathers material every day and night, studying the human species and their experiences from their point of view.

Holed up in a small house out in the middle of nowhere, in an unknown time period, he interviews random people/subjects--ones hoping for a chance at life. You could call him the gatekeeper between the existing and the nonexistent, a cross between a higher power and an immortal soul paying a tax of some kind.

Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

The audience is never privy to Will's past or how he got there, only that he has a few new subjects arriving for "testing," with the course being an introspective dive into what makes the world tick, and can they handle it? Will has a friend and helper in Kyro (Benedict Wong), who shows up each day with his own endless stories of the universe and all its wisdom and rigor. The two men have acted as life repo men for an unknown amount of time, but have grown an odd-yet-working friendship along the way. When a young woman whose life Will ushered into the world suddenly dies, his whole understanding of the past and future collide--and his faith in what he is doing suffers.

Don't worry, moviegoers, I only explained the first 15 minutes of "Nine Days,"

Oda's breathtaking new film that asks all the right questions without answering all of them. Granted, it's the mystery of what is actually happening that will keep your attention hooked; it's the acting and storytelling that makes it memorable. Oda isn't really interested in pulling the rug out from under us or yanking an ace out of the deck in the final 15 minutes. All he's going for here is the meaning of life, and why it ends earlier for some people or how it affects certain people in different ways. Imagine if you had a role in that. Now, you are Will.

The current slate of subjects up for entry are an eclectic bunch of afflicted dreamers: Mike (David Rysdahl) is a tortured artist who was bullied often; Alexander (Tony Hale) is a brash yet good-hearted middle-aged guy who just wants to have a beer with his teacher. Kane (Bill Skarsgard) is young and after justice, but could carry the wrong morals. Maria (Arianna Ortiz) just wants to keep experiencing life, even if hers left a few blank spaces.

But Emma (Zazie Beetz) is the one who confounds Will, presenting challenging questions in return and not conforming just for another go down below. As they watch the same screens that Will studies, trying to spot the beauty and ugly in everyday life, the audience observes right along with them. They have a test, and it's a pass or fail ordeal.

But Oda doesn't wish to confuse or mislead; he's after something bigger than I bet he can explain. That's when filmmakers are making movies for the right reasons: searching for a truth in the world of fiction is the epitome of a renegade at work. "Nine Days," which is the amount of time the subjects have to convince Will that they are the one to get round two, is a heady picture. It's unabashedly cerebral, a motion picture unlike anything you've seen this year or the past few. It's original and emotional, wondrous and far-reaching, something made for a reason.

This is easily Duke's best performance, and it's a slow-burn piece of work. A larger-than-life performer was handed the role of a lifetime here. The "Black Panther" and "Us" star doesn't have to say much to sound provocative on screen, which is exactly what his character needed. Will isn't selecting subjects based on right or wrong answers, whether he dislikes them or not, or some kind of scoring scale. Oda's film is more and deeper than that, and Will is the navigator.

There's something tortured and mysterious about him. How does one get a job on the outskirts of life? What had to happen to him for this lifelong sentence of evaluating to occur? Duke is tremendous at conveying that dynamic, maintaining the mystery and adding poetic graceful notes to his performance.

Beetz can do so much with so little, and her work here is so understated yet impactful. She's the joker in the deck pulling planks of wood out of Will's backstory, which only pulls the audience in closer. The actress has a gift, and it's only just becoming visible. Hale, Rysdahl, Ortiz, and Skarsgard all get their moments to shine, even if they function better as a unit than stand out in any particular way. Wong is so essential and laidback all at once as the one soul in life who sees straight through Will's facade. He walks into the movie and instantly lights it up like a star.

The real star here is Oda's screenplay, which explores the world and all its chaos and wonder. What Will is after, and effectively Oda as well, is connecting the dots between a person and a fate, with all the actions stuffed in between. Just imagine Sportscenter, but human life is being covered and broken down instead of a baseball game. That's the power behind "Nine Days."

Antonio Pinto's music is still swirling around my head like a fresh fountain drink after the first sip. Like Will, it's a slow-burn listen, notes that creep up on you instead of rushing on all at once. Pinto's score doesn't try to be "the movie," just an integral part of it. The cinematography is gorgeously rendered, painting the audience in a time period that could be just about anywhere, but definitely not the place depicted on the videos Will and his subjects watch endlessly.

The last scene, much like last year's sci-fi drama "Synchronic," sealed the deal for me on this film. Before it can detach from the audience, the final 10 minutes just mixes the entire thought-process of the film together like a well-made cocktail.

As a character reads off a triumphant memory on a stage for another's pleasure, we are swept up inside Oda's movie and mind--like a cinematic volcano. I didn't plan for this to happen--but the best endings sneak up and hit you like a rock. Duke, Beetz, Wong, and everybody who contributed to this film deserve to be recognized come awards season--which is only a few months away already!

Speaking of science fiction/fantasy-ish movies, "Nine Days" felt like "Arrival" to me. That film redefined what the genre could do. Oda's film reimagines what we should expect inside-as well as outside-the theater.