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Nine Days review – a brilliantly crafted philosophical deep dive

Souls vie for the chance at being born in debut filmmaker Edson Oda's small miracle of a film, starring Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz

When a person dies, the decay of their body generates infinitesimal particles of carbon dioxide. The disintegration of their bones produces calcium and phosphorus. The end of their life signals the beginning of a new one in a myriad of forms, plants that feed on fertile soil and microorganisms that consume and repurpose in a beautifully orchestrated cycle.

Edson Oda’s debut feature Nine Days explores this idea of life as a precisely calculated equation, albeit in a less scientific, more philosophical manner. Reclusive Will (Winston Duke) splits his days between watching the lives of a select group of people in an imposing wall of television screens and conducting interviews with a series of candidates for a most unusual vacancy: a chance at being born.

“You are being considered for the amazing opportunity of life,” the man tells the souls who enter his common-looking office before providing each one with a unique name – their first contact with a semblance of individuality. The process that follows spans over nine days and consists of a series of moral dilemmas mixed with quiet observation, Will’s sombre demeanour always hovering over the anxiety-ridden applicants.

The minute details behind the specifics of Will’s position remain a mystery, but contestants are made aware of the fact that he was once alive, the main qualifier for becoming the gatekeeper of this puzzling limbo in the form of a rusty cabin in the middle of the desert. As the group faces the wonders and brutalities of being alive, Will is made to rummage once more through the grief and regrets of the life he left behind, confronted time and time again with the cruelty of the old bumper stick cliché: you only live once.

And it is precisely in the simmering pain of rummaging that Duke excels, his performance a visceral display of how small droplets can slowly and gradually bring down the sturdiest of walls. From the controlled undertones of his voice to the way in which his hands uncomfortably grasp for the fragile glasses rigidly sitting at the top of his nose, the actor is in full command of what, at times, feels like an avalanche trapped in Tupperware.

Counterbalancing Duke’s reticent intensity are Benedict Wong as Will’s right-hand man Kyo and Zazie Beetz as rule-breaking candidate Emma. Together, the two Pollyannas play a charming version of The Glad Game, actively choosing to look at life with kind, optimistic eyes, huffing and puffing in camaraderie as they try and try to pull a grunting Will to their side. And yet the man remains unmovable, his eyes drained of joy as he ends all pleas with the words “you have never been alive.”

A small miracle of a film, Nine Days pokes and prods at the darkest corners of the existential without ever surrendering to the heavy fetters of nihilism, an accomplishment for any experienced director that, in the hands of newcomer Edson Oda, feels nothing short of pure magic.

Nine Days is in select UK cinemas from 17 December.

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