Looking up “existentialism” in the dictionary, it is a noun meaning ‘a philosophical theory or approach which emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.”

When we apply this meaning to Edson Oda’s feature debut, “Nine Days,” we are asked to consider not just the meaning of life itself, but the moments that sum up our existence – to truly reflect on what makes us, us.

Oda, who also wrote the screenplay, created a very controlled environment where Winston Duke plays Will, a gatekeeper, or rather an arbiter, judging souls who enter his isolated home in the salt flat deserts. He is supported by Kyo, played by a very human Benedict Wong. Wong, who I first saw in Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” from 2007, struck me with his performance then and as Kyo, continues to impress.

Zazie Beets plays Emma, a free-spirited but optimistic individual. Beets’ personae on-screen lights up a room and stands in stark contrast to the ever-steady Duke. Oda forms a very yin-yang relationship between the two.

In the story, Will is responsible for picking a successor to Amanda, a violin prodigy whose life met with a tragic end. He is fixated on her life. I got the feeling from his performance that he wished he could have done more for her, that he wanted more out of his own life. He must find souls worthy of life back on Earth, and In his role as an arbiter, he must remain impartial. Duke plays that role with a startling perfection, his steady hand assured.

That is until he meets Emma (Beetz). Emma is a challenge, not because of her outlook on life and her positivity, but because she is realistic enough to realize that we are all human, fallible. Beetz wears her emotions on her sleeves and in the way she reacts to Will.

The fascinating achievement that Oda presents on the screen is how Will views moments – a series of CRT televisions and a CRT projector along with VHS VCR’s playback the most critical moments of life; the analog mentality driving a one-way view into someone else’s life is an essential touchstone in the film.

Will’s responsibility is filled with rigorous testing of each candidate, Kane (Bill Skarsgård), Alexander (Tony Hale), Mike (David Rysdahl), Maria (Arianna Ortiz), Colleen (Geraldine Hughes), Luiza (Erika Vasquez), and Anne (Perry Smith), over the course of nine days. I especially liked the abhorrent cheekiness Rysdahl plays Mike, who is more interested in himself than others.

Oda paints an interesting concept of failure, as the test weeds out potential candidates. One by one, the true nature of the individual candidates bubbles to the surface, and Will provides these souls by recreating a cherished memory before they are delivered into the ether.

“Nine Days” is as much a spiritual journey as it is an affirmation of the good we as a species are capable of. Never is that aspect on display as much as it is at the dinner table, where Will, Emma, Kan, and Kyo talk about the grossest thing they have ever experienced. Oda creates a tactile sense out of the dialogue, and the way cinematographer Wyatt Garfield moves his camera, we get a real sense of who these souls are.

“Nine Days” reminded me of Pixar’s “Soul” and Carl Reiner’s “All of Me” from a different vantage point. All three have something in common: everyone’s life has value. It’s what we put into our lives that matters the most, even in an afterlife.

Themes of isolation and desperation come to the surface, and the set design team deserves accolades for the look of the house in which Will arbitrates.

Will and Emma have one final meeting of the minds. Duke cantillates Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” with such fervor that I had to bring the Kleenex out; his performance is that good. His oratory, though, summed up my feelings about Oda’s “Nine Days” exceptionally well.

Expanding this weekend, “Nine Days” is a worthy and clear look at the way we view life and asks questions on how, when we’re tested, we will face that next step.

  • Movie Review: Nine Days