Winston Duke is one of the most versatile character actors working today. There seemingly isn’t a role that Duke can’t blend into, be it a power-hungry leader in Black Panther or a bumbling father who miraculously survives in Us. Nine Days once again sees Duke challenge himself as an actor, taking on a role unlike anything else in his filmography. Duke plays Will, an arbiter who exists somewhere beyond our plane of existence. Over nine days, he’s tasked with interviewing five souls, only one of which will get to experience life. Duke brings an understated demeanor to his performance, contrasting yet oddly complementing the ambitious scope of Edson Oda’s debut film.
Duke is far from the ensemble’s only highlight. Will takes a special interest in a soul named Emma (Zazie Beetz), an optimist who wants to see the best in everybody and ask the questions nobody else would. She’s the opposite of Bill Skarsgård’s Kane, who’s more cynical and willing to accept the notion that evil exists in the world. Having lived once, Will sees eye to eye with Kane’s bleaker outlook. Yet, he can’t help but be drawn to Emma’s lust for life, even though she’s technically not alive. Tony Hale also gives the most dramatic performance of his career as a sarcastic soul named Alexander, and Benedict Wong continues his streak of playing scene-stealing best friends.
When he isn’t contemplating which soul to choose, Will is fixated on Amanda, a woman he previously picked who died in a car crash. Will observes the world through televisions, collecting old VHS tapes. It’s unclear if this takes place before or after the introduction of digital media, but the less we know the better. Will’s time on Earth is also something of an enigma, although he clearly didn’t live it to the fullest. Where Amanda represents the missed opportunities of Will’s life, Emma symbolizes a new beginning. Can a soul as pure-hearted as Emma survive the pain and suffering that comes with living, though?
Nine Days creates a world of its own with nothing more than a remote house and a barren desert. With his first film, Oda demonstrates the makings of a young Spike Jonze. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Jonze served as an executive producer. Nine Days has the heart of Her and the inventiveness of Being John Malkovich. The Jonze movie that it perhaps shares the most in common with is, strangely enough, Where the Wild Things Are. Both films transport the audience to a place beyond our understanding, but the emotions at their core always resonate.
Of course, Nine Days is also bound to draw comparisons to Pixar’s Soul. Once again, we have a man trying to connect with a naive soul while also finding his own spark. Although Nine Days doesn’t pack the same emotional gut-punch, it is another profound experience. It builds to an uplifting yet ambiguous conclusion with several unanswered questions. Three things are for certain, however. Duke will continue to deliver transformative performances, Oda will enjoy a career full of promise, and Nine Days will leave you with a deeper appreciation for life.