The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Nine Days,’ an existential film about five people competing to be born, is like a live-action ‘Soul’

Winston Duke, left, stars in “Nine Days.” (Michael Coles/Michael Coles./Sony Pictures Classics)
(3 stars)

“Nine Days,” an existential fantasy about a group of unborn human souls going through the application and interview process for the job of life, makes for a fine, live-action companion piece to Pixar’s animated feature “Soul,” which was one of the best and most life-affirming films of last year, in any medium. Writer-director Edson Oda, making an auspicious feature debut, has devised a deliberately stagy — yet surprisingly effective — device to make his point: Life should not be taken for granted.

Pixar’s ‘Soul’ has plenty of visual razzle-dazzle, and a convoluted, existential plot

To that end, Oda sets up the main protagonist, Will (Winston Duke) as a kind of drudge-like celestial bureaucrat — albeit one working in a decidedly grubby home office cluttered with filing cabinets. Will is in charge of vetting candidates for openings on Earth. Part of his job, in a slightly shabby home in the middle of a nameless desert — is to monitor a wall of old-fashioned TV consoles attached to a bank of VCRs. They record the world as seen through the eyes of the handful of people Will has sent to terra firma. If one of his charges should die, as happens early in the film, Will is tasked with vetting a replacement.

Next thing he knows, there are knocks on the door, followed by a parade of interviewees, who quickly get winnowed to five, played by Zazie Beetz, Tony Hale, Arianna Ortiz, David Rysdahl and Bill Skarsgard. What follows is nine days of a not-quite-but-almost “Survivor”-style process of elimination, characterized less by silly immunity challenges than sometimes-uncomfortable psych evals, occasionally nasty head games and the kind of hypothetical what-would-you-do questions popular among college philosophy majors, for which there are no good — let alone right or wrong — answers.

If it all sounds strained to the point of artifice, it is, but intentionally so, and with a sure grasp of style and message. The setup is such that when a candidate is cut from the pool, they are given a parting gift: the opportunity to experience an approximation of one corporeal pleasure — a last wish — chosen from what they’ve seen of life on Earth on those TV screens.

One soul chooses a day at the beach, replicated by a pile of sand and gently lapping surf (actually a puddle of water stirred by a broom). It’s the lowest of low-tech virtual reality, and yet it has a profoundly simple charm. Benedict Wong plays Kyo, Will’s assistant of sorts, and the man with the broom. He also asks Will at one point: What if we, the watchers, are being watched somewhere else by another set of watchers, who are likewise being watched? And so on and so forth, all the way up?

It sounds like the kind of thing you might need to be high to tolerate, yet it’s okay, even encouraged, to laugh here, in a film that takes itself less seriously than it sounds. Late in the nine-day process, when the field has been narrowed to two applicants, Will and Kyo and the finalists gather for a meal, and a contest to see who can tell the most disgusting story. Gross-out humor, it seems, should be embraced, even by the unborn.

Here’s the thing: Kyo’s question about watchers isn’t just idle speculation. That’s because we, as it turns out, are the ultimate watchers. Will — who, it is revealed, was once alive — has forgotten what that feels like, and he needs one of the job candidates, who hasn’t yet lived, but who’s seen it on TV, to remind him. Similarly, Oda suggests, we could all use a refresher.

“Nine Days” is, in the end, meant as a wake-up call: a bracing splash of fake seawater in the face that somehow, against all logic, feels like the real thing.

R. At area theaters. Contains coarse language, brief violence and mature thematic elements. 124 minutes.

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