REVIEW: Nine Days (Sundance 2020)
Charlie Brooker’s TV series Black Mirror has been hugely influential on film and television over the last decade, for better and for worse. Even though acclaim for the show may have dwindled (it is not what it once was), its impact is still being felt, with two of the films at Sundance 2020 (that I saw) feeling like episodes of Black Mirror. But luckily in both cases, this is not a criticism, with the first being Brandon Cronenberg’s horror film Possessor and the second being Edson Oda’s Nine Days. The key to a successful film in this particular brand of science-fiction (although that is not really the right term) is taking what is usually a high concept, but telling the story simply and with excellent acting. This is certainly the case in one of the best Black Mirror episodes, San Junipero and it is the case here.
Winston Duke plays Will (and that name is surely no coincidence), a man who lives and works in a house in the middle of nowhere. He has multiple television screens set up in his living room, through which he watches the daily lives of his ‘subjects.’ He has a particular favourite, who he is most interested in and when tragedy befalls her, he must try to cope with the guilt and ramifications. He now has the task to interview her replacement and several candidates come to his home to be interviewed and tested for the position, including Emma (Zazie Beetz), Kane (Bill Skarsgard) and Alexander (Tony Hale). They have nine days to prove that they are worthy. Every so often, Will’s boss Kyo (Benedict Wong) comes by to check in on him.
It is difficult to talk about pretty much anything that happens in Nine Days without feeling like you are spoiling the experience for the viewer. I would recommend going in knowing as little as possible and read the reviews after you’ve seen it.
For those of us who have only seen Winston Duke in Black Panther and Us, Nine Days is an absolute revelation. Duke gave my performance of the festival – he is absolutely outstanding as the reticent Will and blew me away. His job is to understand the human condition, to interrogate people in order to assess their characters but he will give nothing away of himself. When Emma, the most rebellious of the interviewees, shows curiosity about him and tries to turn the tables by finding out more about Will, he becomes extremely resistant and at times, angry. Duke gets a particular stand-out scene towards the end, but his work during the slow build-up to this moment is equally impressive.
Zazie Beetz is a fantastic actress who has not chosen great parts in recent years (Joker, Wounds, Deadpool 2). Thankfully she gets to properly show what she can do here (as she does in the phenomenal TV show Atlanta). Kane is the least sensitive or sentimental of the subjects and has a pragmatic attitude towards using violence when necessary, whereas Alexander treats most things as a joke and is out for a good time. Bill Skarsgard (best known for playing Pennywise) is starting to demonstrate his range by picking some interesting roles. His dynamic with Beetz is a particular highlight here. It is also delightful to hear Benedict Wong getting to use his own Manchester accent for once.
The production design of the house (where pretty much the entire film takes place) is incredible. Will finds innovative ways of recreating “real-world” experiences for the candidates, including a bicycle surrounded by sheets with projections of street scenes. Sometimes sand, ‘snow’ or blossom is used to make the experience more authentic. Will exists within a bizarrely low-tech world, making it feel as if he is trapped in the past or suspended in time. The house is in the middle of what appears to be a salt flat and when there is a rare moment of the characters breaking out from the confines of the house, the cinematography opens up stunningly wide.
Nine Days gets extremely existential and philosophical about what it means to be human and your tolerance for its “appreciate every moment given to you, you’re lucky to be alive” message will certainly vary. As someone who generally cannot stand sentimentality in films, I found the writing here to on the right side of moving, without veering too often into being glib or overly sweet/sickly. It is definitely the strength of the acting, especially from Duke which is so impressive here and which prevents the film from sliding into over-indulgence. Edson Oda must also be credited with what is a pretty sensational feature-film debut, it is certainly not safe in any way and presents big ideas unapologetically. Nine Days has *just* been picked up by Sony Picture Classics and it will be interesting to see how its release unfolds and whether it becomes a sleeper-hit in the vein of Get Out. Duke more than deserves to be in awards conversations as it is doubtful we will see many better performances this year.