‘Nine Days’ Review: Belief in the Beforelife

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov. We have been imagining and describing one of those ostensible eternities — the afterlife — for millenniums. “Nine Days,” the ambitious and often impressive debut feature from the writer-director Edson Oda, surprises by positing a prelife world, and a vetting process determining which souls are awarded a term on earth.

In a small house in the middle of a desert, a stocky, quiet man named Will (Winston Duke) watches a bank of tube TVs, recording their feeds on VHS cassettes. These POVs show the lives of the people he’s “passed.”

Just as he’s meeting, one by one, a new group of individuals to assess, one of his people in the world ends their life, which shakes Will to the core. He gets obsessed over why. Will this affect his ability to look at his new charges with fairness?

“Nine Days” is more about questions than answers. It’s not an overtly political film, in any sense. Will’s screens don’t seem to depict any human beings who aren’t at least in the vicinity of the middle class. When Will is pitching his candidates on his process, he tells them of “the amazing opportunity of life,” and that if they pass they will be “born in a fruitful environment.” But later Will blurts out some thoughts to his friend and neighbor Kyo (Benedict Wong) suggesting Will believes himself something of a con man.

The candidates are, arguably, stock characters with some sensitively added value. Alexander (Tony Hale) just wants to have beers and hang out. When he learns that Will himself once lived on earth — the film’s realm encompasses souls both “passed” and those never born — he can’t figure out why Will is reluctant. We know that Emma (Zazie Beetz) is going to be a special kind of free spirit by the insouciance she displays when showing up late for her first appointment.

Oda is a very assured and sometimes inspired filmmaker, and he handles his actors beautifully. Duke and Beetz in particular deliver performances for the ages. And the movie’s inquiries, about ethics, morality, consciousness and the ability to hang on in this brief crack of light we’re sharing at the moment, are pertinent. But the narrative conceits of “Nine Days,” while exquisitely constructed, are intricate to the point of laborious. At times the movie almost sinks under their weight.

Nine Days
Rated R for language and themes. Running time 2 hours 4 minutes. In theaters.

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