Saturday, February 01, 2020

Sundance ’20: Nine Days

You’re being watched, so try to do something interesting. In this case, the surveillance isn’t dystopian. It’s cosmic. Someplace outside of existence, a lonely caretaker watches 25 lives unfold on POV TV screens, until he suddenly has a vacancy in LA-based Brazilian filmmaker Edson Oda’s revelatory feature debut, Nine Days, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

This little prairie house looks like could be a location in Fargo, but instead it is found on a plane beyond our own. It serves as Will’s headquarters, where he observes the 25 mortals he approved to be born into life. His only occasional contact is Kyo, he serves in some sort of coordinating capacity for a number of such outposts. He will be visiting more frequently while Will interviews prospective souls after the unexpected death of one of his 25 lives.

She was his pride and joy, but for some reason, the classical musician appears to have taken her own life. Maddeningly, the video is ambiguous, so Will obsessively reviews her archive, looking for clues. Regardless, he must choose her replacement, so he begins the nine-day process of elimination with the group of souls mysteriously summoned to the house. The top candidates seem to be the tough-talking Kane and the free-spirited Emma. For better or worse, the recent tragedy colors his selection, but his own experience weighs just as heavily. Unlike most of the characters existing in this space, Will was once alive, but it didn’t work out so well.

Clearly, Nine Days bears the influence of Kore-eda’s After Life, both thematically and stylistically. At the very least, you have to give Oda credit for ambition by picking such an incomparable film to pay tribute to. That makes it even more impressive when Nine Days steps out of its shadow and indelibly establishes its own identity. Be warned, Oda aims for a massive emotional crescendo and pulls it off with devastating impact. We are talking about the full “Captain, my Captain,” getting-choked-up-in-spite-of-yourself effect here.

As Will, Winston Duke lands a knockout haymaker punch in what is arguably the standout performance of this year’s Sundance. It starts as a slow-boiling, acutely disciplined portrayal of pain and anger, but when he erupts, it is deeply meaningful. On the other end of the spectrum Zazie Beetz perfectly counterbalances him as the intuitive and instinctively empathetic Emma. Yet, perhaps the most soulful and poignant work comes from Benedict Wong as Kyo. It might sound hard to believe, the those three far outshine the typically flamboyant Bill “Pennyworth” Skarsgard and Tony “Buster Bluth” Hale portraying Kane and a more nebbish soul-contender.

Yes, Nine Days is manipulative. Boy, is it ever, but it earns its sentimentality through Oda’s intelligent characterization and the ensemble’s powerful performances. This film lands—hard. It also boasts a remarkably distinctive look, thanks to the warm, tactile work of cinematographer Wyatt Garfield and production designer Dan Hermansen’s team. It is a stunning debut from a significant new talent. Very highly recommended, Nine Days screens again this afternoon (2/1) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.