Live to Work, Work to Live – Nine Days

I’ve mentioned before that one of my favorite movies is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life from 1998, easily one of the most profound existential explorations ever put to celluloid. In it, a group of dead social workers welcome the souls of the recently deceased to a way station of sorts, where they spend a week interviewing the newcomers. The workers help the confused souls accept their deaths and select the single most important moment from each of their lives, which is then recreated on a film set. The souls then watch themselves on the screen and live in that instance for eternity. The major thematic twist is that the social workers are people who themselves haven’t been able to move on and accept what’s happened to them, and in the end one of the newly dead joins them, unable to choose his moment.

It’s a truly powerful and oddly comforting thought, sort of the inverse of the one-off gag of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey when the titular pair are in Hell. The Devil tells them, “Choose your eternity” from a set of torturous, exaggerated memories, whereas here, you get to choose the infinite from any array of life experiences that was significant to you. It doesn’t even have to be a pleasant memory (the workers have a routine of trying to talk people out of their first kiss or their first sexual experience, for example), just a definitive one, the one that best sums up your life, and of course, one that you would be comfortable reliving forever. It’s all about truly getting to the center of what makes you, well, you.

A similar mindset seems to be at the forefront of Nine Days (not to be confused with the 90s one-hit wonder band), written and directed by commercial director Edson Oda, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last year, and has finally gotten a wide release. There are similar existential themes at work here to After Life, as well as more recent fare like Soul. The performances of the ensemble cast are also really strong. Unfortunately, Oda appears to have painted himself into an unnecessarily cruel corner while reaching for pathos and sacrificed a truly satisfying story and character study in the process. It’s still a good film, but it has some glaring issues that prevent it from joining its thematical contemporaries.

At an isolated house in a remote wasteland (most of the exterior shots were filmed in the Utah desert), a man named Will (Winston Duke in a truly fantastic performance), monitors a first-person view of several lives via television screens. These are lives he has more or less created, as it is his job to interview newly-made souls before they are born. He is joined by a solitary companion, Kyo, played by a never-better Benedict Wong (he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his performance earlier this year). Kyo serves as a sort of advisor to Will, but cannot make the decisions himself, as he has never lived on Earth, but Will has. In essence, because Will has known what it means to be alive, he is allowed to judge who gets to share that experience.

On the way to an important music recital, one of Will’s souls, named Amanda, crashes her car and dies. The circumstances of her death aren’t immediately clear, but Will is nonetheless distraught, as Amanda was his favorite. But now there is work to be done, as Amanda’s death creates a “vacancy” on Earth that he must now fill. One by one, he welcomes a diverse group of wandering souls into his home (the main ones played by likes of Tony Hale, Zazie Beetz, Bill Skarsgård, Arianna Ortiz, and David Rysdahl). He tells them each in turn (with wonderful editing to cut from one candidate to the next) that one of them will be selected for the position, at which point they will be “born” into the world. They will retain no memory of this place, nor of their real-world infancy, but they will always be the person they are presenting themselves as here. The entire process will take nine days for the eventual person chosen, though everyone else will be cut along the way. He will ask them questions, present them with scenarios to see how they would react, and allow them to observe his other living candidates to see what they like and dislike about the concept of life itself in order to make his decision. He gives them each a notebook to keep a journal during the interview process.

This is a fascinating concept, but there are major flaws within it. The idea of having an interview for the gift of life is beyond intriguing, and it sort of mirrors the mentoring process in Soul. The big difference between the two are the stakes at hand. In Soul, whenever someone finds their “spark,” their major personality traits (displayed on their bulbous torsos), turn into an “Earth Pass,” and they simply jump through a portal from the Great Before and go to Earth. Everyone gets to live, it’s just a matter of how long it takes for someone to, in essence, find themselves.

Here, on the other hand, there’s only one spot, and it’s winner-take-all. Anyone who doesn’t get picked ceases to exist. Will, being an empathetic person, gives them an exit interview when he breaks the news, and, like After Life, allows them to choose something that they observed on the screens that they’d like to experience first-hand, and Will and Kyo recreate it to the best of their abilities, giving the soon-to-be deleted souls a chance to “feel” alive for a few moments.

It’s sweet, but ultimately cruel. I mean, let’s break this down for a minute. First, a death on Earth has to create an opening for life, but in practical terms, that’s simply not true. Earth’s population grows every year by the tens of millions, so clearly this can’t be a 1-to-1 ratio. So why can’t Will choose multiple candidates? Similarly, why do the unsuccessful candidates get erased? The film posits that there is some force that creates these souls – at least 12 for this film’s purposes – but what’s the point if 11 of them will be completely destroyed within a week? That creates a ton of work for this unseen creator that is in no way efficient or proportionate to the work Will and Kyo undertake. And further, why delete them at all? Clearly it’s not an automatic process, as Kyo is allowed to stick around and advise, even though he was never born and never lived. So why can’t some of the losing candidates be spared? Why can’t they be given observational and advisory roles like Kyo? Why create all these personalities just to excise the vast majority based on someone else’s whims?

And for that matter, what qualifies Will to be a judge of humanity? Through exposition, we eventually learn that Will did not have a happy life, save for a few moments that come into play later (and results in one truly gorgeous bit of acting at the end; seriously it’s one of the best scenes of the year), and that he endured a lot of bullying and ostracization as a child. As such, he leans towards candidates that he believes are tough enough to make it in the harsh reality of life. It’s also why Amanda’s death torments him, because if her death is anything but an accident, he sees it as a personal failure on his part, that he somehow chose wrong in picking a “weak” soul. That all sounds well and good, but what truly defines toughness? Does he want his candidates to be just as cruel as the world was to him? Does he want people who can overcome the odds? His criteria – be they personal or professional – are never stated and left intentionally ambiguous. That’s fine in a vacuum, but when the prize at stake is existence itself, the candidates he’s judging – and we in the audience – deserve to know what they are, especially when he tells everyone upfront to be honest with him, and then he seemingly punishes them for that very honesty.

It’s needlessly dark and mean-spirited for a film trying to depict an answer for the big questions in life, and it’s not at all satisfying, especially within the universe Oda sets up. Let’s assume that the 1-to-1 ratio lines up and that for every death there must be a life. Given that, we can assume that whatever the creative force behind the souls is, it knows that one of Will’s people has died, and knows where to send the new candidates. What sort of cruel entity creates a dozen souls knowing at least half of them are doomed based on who it sends them to? It’s at best a ton of extra work for nothing, and at worst utterly heartless. And there’s no reason for it.

It’s sort of uncouth for a critic to try to “fix” a movie. We’re supposed to judge what we got, not what we wanted. But here, I think a bit of armchair quarterbacking is warranted, because we’re in a situation where we may not know the creator’s role within the film’s universe, but we do know who created this universe, and that’s Edson Oda. He makes the rules here, which means he didn’t have to go with what he did, and there were two easy changes he could have made to alleviate the central theme’s problematic weight. One, don’t make it an interview for birth. Make it an interview for rebirth. Go the Hindu/Buddhist route (just listing them as examples, there’s no religious endorsement either way in the movie) and have these souls be applying for reincarnation. That way they have life experience, they can answer Will’s questions with previous knowledge and adapt to situations, and if they are to “disappear” after losing, at least they had something truly tangible, rather than a pity parting gift before they’re wiped from existence. Two, don’t erase them. This process is treated like a job interview, so go the whole way with it. Whenever people are up for a job, the hiring manager doesn’t kill the candidates who don’t get chosen. The people move on to look for another job, or the company might look for another role they can fill, or their “résumé is kept on file” for future opportunities. so just go with that. It’s one simple line. Just have Will say, “There will be other chances,” and the entire tone of the film shifts to something much more palatable. It’s way more sympathetic than giving the departed one brief taste of life before eradicating them, rendering said taste meaningless because they won’t remember it.

Because as it stands now, the metaphor is muddied. This is an interview process for life, yet in practical terms it’s more like sperm swimming towards an egg. Only one can break through and fertilize (except in the rarest of situations), and the rest die. But sperm have no personalities, and neither do eggs. Plus, as Will gets close to his decision, Amanda’s screen (turned to a test pattern after her death) becomes a fetus in utero, so the biological process is already well in progress (just in case someone wants to claim that the filmmakers are saying life begins at conception or something). It’s not like a defined sperm can break through an undefined egg (kind of sexist when you think about it) after Will makes his choice. And most importantly, even if all of this were to somehow hold up, there’s no outside influence determining which sperm makes it through. It’s basically random. If you’re going to assign different personality traits to them like Woody Allen did in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), you have to also allow that any of them can break through, creating a life you can’t control, and Will’s role flies right in the face of that.

Now, for all that ranting I just did, I concede that it wouldn’t actually be that big of a deal were it not for a really large issue with the story structure. All of the major candidates are played by spectacular actors giving great performances, particularly Beetz and Hale playing to their strengths. But Oda’s screenplay removes all the intrigue from the story with one all-too-obvious action. Winston spends the first day interviewing candidates on a preliminary basis, one at a time. Late that first night, the final one shows up, which Will mentions is well after their appointed time. Everyone else was “on time,” meaning the creator made them and sent them on their way on a schedule, but this one was late. Will doesn’t even want to open the door and go through the motions, preferring instead to eliminate them. When Kyo overrides him, Will gets even more frustrated at the candidate’s obstinance, as they refuse to answer his questions, and reject their assigned name, only for Will to grant the freedom to name themselves, and they choose the assigned one anyway. Will is clearly over it, but Kyo sees potential, and it’s his job to make sure Will doesn’t make a “bad” choice.

This scene, while very well-acted by all involved, instantly removes any real suspense from the proceedings, as basic story construction rules now mandates there can be only two possible outcomes. Either this person will be so spunky and offbeat that their lack of ability to be pigeonholed will eventually win Will over and he’ll choose them despite initial misgivings, or he’ll grow very close to them but still stick to his proverbial guns and choose who he was going to pick all along, leading to some heartbreaking conclusion.

There are no other options. This scene establishes the character as being far more important and special than everyone else we got to meet in the opening act, meaning they can’t be casually tossed aside, and all but one other is rendered as fodder. There’s a mild mystery as to who that other one will be, but as Will’s attitude develops and exposition provides details of his own personality, even that tiny bit of suspense is quickly dashed, and we in the audience are simply left to wait until the others are dispatched before we can wrap this up and hope that Oda doesn’t chicken out on his own ending.

Not to play backseat driver again, but imagine if we don’t have this scene. Imagine if this character shows up on time with everyone else and is treated as an equal within the candidate ensemble. That gives us legitimate pathos for everyone involved. It gives us someone to root for no matter what our own biases and preferences might be. It allows us to be legitimately happy at who eventually gets picked or saddened when our chosen hero loses. It’s like a competition reality show like Survivor. Stories are formed in post-production around the players based on how far they go, with the players who run deeper into the game getting the most development, so that hopefully, the audience is engaged enough in the eventual winner (or set of finalists) to be satisfied at the outcome.

That’s how the movie starts out. A dozen or so people show up, but only half of them are given names (even in the credits the early boots are listed as something like “Female Candidate 4,” for example). We can’t give full equality of screen time to everyone, but we can give relatively level focus to everyone who makes a deep run, and then let the late-stage stories develop and grant more attention to the eventual finalists. It’s a tried and true formula that’s been working for at least the last 20 years, if not longer in other genres.

Instead, Oda tells us basically right off the bat that everyone we meet doesn’t matter, only the one who shows up last. We’re under orders to root for this one person, even when doing so might be counterintuitive to our own preferences and is definitely antithetical to Will’s established purpose. Instead of letting the audience choose their rooting interest, it’s forced upon us, to the point that if the “happy” ending happens, it feels manipulative, and if the “sad” ending happens, it feels unearned.

To go back to the Survivor analogy, imagine if in the premiere episode, every single player of the 16-20 or so in the season only got one second of face time, and most didn’t even get names, but then someone just shows up at the first challenge and dominates, getting more screen time than even Jeff Probst and showing more attitude than the rest of the cast put together. You’d never tune back in, because you’d know that person was making it to the end, and most likely winning. Even if you emotionally latched onto this person because you dug their vibe, most likely you’d just come back for the finale to see if they won, because you’d know you needed nothing for the 10-plus episodes in the middle. That’s what Oda does by making this scene.

It’s a shame, because I really wanted to like this film more than I did. The premise is sound, and the performances are top notch. There could have been something truly profound and groundbreaking here. Instead, Edson Oda pointed a 12-gauge directly at his foot and pulled the trigger, choosing a purposelessly cruel conceit to set the stakes in his story and foisting a protagonist onto the audience rather than let one emerge organically. This is still a film worth seeing and examining, but it reeks of missed potential.

Grade: B-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What do you think the afterlife is like? Do you think you could pass Will’s interview process? Let me know!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s