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Review: Talking, and talking some more, about the meaning of life in 'Nine Days'

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Will (Winston Duke, left) tests Kane (Bill Skarsgard) to see if he's a soul ready to go to Earth in the sci-fi drama "Nine Days."

It's taken "Nine Days" considerably longer than that to get in front of your eyeballs. Austin Film Festival couldn’t have a big blowout last year because of the pandemic, so it was nice that they kicked off their virtual festival with a film that was once a selection for the jettisoned South by Southwest 2020. That fall, it was a perfect “film fest-y” flick to remind us of the imaginative fare we love seeing in big rooms of cinema nerds.

Edson Oda's philosophically minded fantasy is finally out in theaters this weekend. Taken out of the context of a lockdown-era streaming festival, it might be too sleepy to satisfy amid the resurgence of blockbusters like "Black Widow" and ambitious indie crowd-pleasers like "The Green Knight." 

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In "Nine Days," sweater-vested Will (Winston Duke of “Black Panther” and “Us,” in star thespian mode here) lives alone in a handsomely worn desert house, where he interviews souls for the chance to be born. He was once alive, actually, so he knows what it’s like on the other side of the wall of televisions in his living room, from where he monitors the people successful enough to win him over and enter the world.

When one of those born souls tragically dies, we see Will’s process unfold, as he interviews a handful of potential humans over the course of about nine days with the help of an assistant (Benedict Wong, ever an MVP).

The souls run the gamut of personality shading: fearlessly ethical (Bill Skarsgård), genial but cowardly (Tony Hale) and, in one case that turns Will’s carefully regimented system on its head, curious and uncannily compassionate — Emma (the marvelous Zazie Beetz, of “Atlanta” and other projects far beneath her talent).

“Nine Days,” written and directed by Oda in his feature debut, is a classic arthouse flick, taking an avant-garde concept that could risk sounding like bong-driven Philosophy 101 straight from a dorm room and suffusing the runtime with craft and a humanity that hurts so good.

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Duke and Beetz are stunning together. He’s solid, serious and suffering; she’s inquisitive, assured and new, a hot knife of grace through the ice of life’s (and lives’) disappointments. They’re oil and vinegar, chemically opposed but better matched for no one but themselves, swirling together in complement. And, so refreshing to boot, you’d have to be looking too hard to find romance there.

When I first saw this during Austin Film Festival, I felt warmer toward it, though a rewatch months later revealed a pacing drag and some cloying, stilted dialogue. Sometimes a film feels too much like a play to feel truly alive, ironically. What can I say? Maybe I was a little stir crazy then.

Still, the concept is worthwhile, and Beetz and Duke are too fun to watch flexing their chops. Oda’s given us a reminder that life is a great chance. Be bold, “Nine Days” says, and be gentle. 

'Nine Days'

Grade: B-

Starring: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong

Director: Edson Oda

Rated: R for language

Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes

Watch: In theaters