Nine Days Movie Explained: Ending, Themes & Free Will and The Human Condition Analysed
Nine Days Movie Ending Explained & Themes Analyzed: Japanese Brazilian writer-director Edson Oda’s ambitious debut feature Nine Days (2020) is a metaphysical humanist drama that deals with the pre-existence of the soul, the existentialist perception of the human condition, and the meaning of life. Oda’s leap into feature filmmaking, after a series of highly acclaimed and award-winning short films and music videos, has definitely given him a place among the authentic and profound voice of contemporary cinema. The film that had its premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. It is an introspective experience that encompasses elements of speculative fiction and spiritual sci-fi that explore the deeper questions of who and what we are and the timeless quest of humans to find purpose and connection in the external world.
Nine Days is an emotionally-charged and exquisite film set in a single location with its genre conceit dealing with a man tasked with interviewing souls where each soul strives to prove their right to existence. The pre-life reality envisioned by Oda is grounded in reality with physical existence and physical environment, in what seems like a parallel dimension, where chosen ones are given life on Earth while the rejected ones are erased from their short-term and provisional existence. This evocative and thought-provoking film is an elaborate metaphor on how souls are selected for the responsibility of life based on their unique characteristics and choices that make them human.
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One can distinctly discern Oda’s inspiration of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life (1998) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) as well as a passing resemblance to Pixar’s animated film Soul (2020) that also explores the ‘before-life’ or the world of unborn souls. It is also a personal project for Oda as it was also inspired by the suicide of his uncle when he was just 12 years old.
This article attempts to explain some of the aspects of the film that requires more clarity and tries to throw some light into the deeper meaning the film puts forward for its viewers. Refrain from reading and save it for later if you haven’t watched the movie as the write-up may contain spoilers. Those who have experienced this soulful meditation, keep reading!
NINE DAYS SYNOPSIS & SUMMARY:
WILL, THE ARBITER OF THE PRIMORDIAL PURGATORY
“Nine Days” opens with Will (Winston Duke), an arbiter of souls or the gatekeeper of the primordial purgatory, observing the live POV of different individuals he had previously picked to receive the gift of life on multiple television sets stacked on each other in his living room. He tracks the days and takes down detailed notes about their everyday life, their high point and hardships, and records them on VHS tapes which are kept in a room of filing cabinets.
Will is particularly interested in the life of a 28-year-old woman named Amanda Grazzini, a violinist and prodigy, whose life plays out in snippets at the beginning of the film. He records her as intellectually curious, fearless, and joyful, outgoing personality, and a prodigy while the key moments from her life are shown literally through her eyes. With the harmonic tone of the violin in the background (composed by Antonio Pinto), we see Amanda as a child, her loving parents, choosing violin from an assortment of toys, playing in the muddy water, painting a picture, celebrating her birthday, performing in a violin concerto, graduating, learning music notes, cycling through the streets, dancing with her friends, and rehearsing for a big concert.
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Will also notices Rick Virgil, a 14-year-old boy who experiences relentless bullying at the hands of his classmates, Luiza Crolin attending her last dance class before her wedding, and Fernando Pereira in his wheelchair practicing at the shooting range. At nighttime, she switches off each of the TV sets but listens to Amanda playing her violin late in the night. Will lives in a slightly shabby home with a white picket fence in the middle of an ambiguous, desolate desert with distance nondescript mountains in the background, and a completely flat landscape surrounding the homestead. And Will’s only companion is Kyo (Benedict Wong), a friendly co-worker who assists Will during interviews and also watches and critiques the actions of the individuals on the television screen.
TRAGEDY STRIKES: THE ARRIVAL OF NEW SOULS
On the day of the concerto, Will and Kyo witnesses in the grainy first-person footage instead of driving her car to give the grand performance, Amanda drives too fast on the highway and crashes into an overpass, and dies. Amanda’s death haunts Will as she had never exhibited signs of depression or suicidal tendencies and becomes obsessed with trying to understand why she died by searching for answers in the footage. While mourning, Will also comes to terms with the fact that he has to choose a replacement to fill the new vacancy left by Amanda.
Soon, the unborn souls in human form begin to arrive at Will’s residence and Will has the monumental task of selecting a soul in nine days. Will makes it clear to the candidates that he is not “the boss” or God and describes himself as “a cog in the wheel.” When a candidate asks Will about the difference between being there and being alive, he says, “Any feeling, sensation, emotion is much less intense here.” And he is sure of this because Will has previous experience as a living person. Will was also chosen by an interviewer just like himself.
The notable five candidates out of the nine include Maria (Arianna Ortiz), the shy romantic who develops a crush on Will, Mike (David Rysdahl), a sensitive and anxious artist, Alexander (Tony Hale), a wisecracking and friendly man who ignores the ugly side of living, Kane (Bill Skarsgard), the serious pragmatic, and Emma (Zazie Beetz), an inquisitive free-spirited optimistic woman. go through a nine-day audition process.
What is the Nine Days audition process like?
Will has designed his nine-day elimination interview process rigorously which consists of comparative hypothetical situations and moral challenges. Their first task is to answer a hypothetical scenario set in a concentration camp where one has to choose between killing his/her son or having the whole camp killed because he tried to escape. The answers vary but the latecomer Emma refuses to answer the question and he notices that she is different from others.
When the souls who survived the first day come to Will’s residence on the second day, he shows them around the house and makes them aware of the lay of the land. He gives them each a notebook to record what they like or dislike based on what they see in the different television sets. It showcases how the chosen souls go about their lives and it is an opportunity for them to see what it means to be alive. As the assignment progresses, Will eliminates those souls which lack the requirements or qualifications to be born on Earth. The terminated souls will vanish into the ether, their existences snuffed out almost as quickly as they began. Will offers them the opportunity to live one moment of their choosing before they are vanquished into the unknown as a parting gift.
The first to get eliminated is Mike because he has a troubled and anxious personality who showed vulnerability and a lack of confidence. It is highlighted when Will asked him to show what he had written in his notebook. Mike tried to hide his work but when he finally allows Will to see what Mike had written, he finds a beautiful drawing of a beach in his notebook. When Will asked Mike if he liked what he drew, Mike responded, “No, I hate it.” and made Will promise not to let anyone see it. By showing self-hatred and distrust in his own creation as well as for himself, he is not a fit candidate who can survive life on Earth. When Mike is informed that he had not been chosen, he agrees to Will’s decision by remarking that he was not “good enough” for the real world. Mike chooses a day at the beach and Will and Kyo replicate a virtual reality beach scene with a pile of sand and gently lapping surf which delights Mike.
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Will continues to ask several hypothetical questions to the candidates. He asks Emma what she would do when she becomes a witness to someone getting bullied, asks Kane what he would do if he found 500 dollars in a wallet in the street, asks Alexander what he would do if his mother makes cookies for his brother but not for him, and asks Maria what she will do if she learns that she only has six months to live. The answers are emblematic of their real character and personality.
The next to get eliminated is Maria, an eternal romantic who is drawn to the feeling of love in the world. She spends her time observing the romantic lives on the television and even develops a seemingly unreciprocated love interest towards Will. Will notices this expression of love as Maria’s vulnerability as it would stand as an obstacle for the fulfilment of life in the real world. She goes to extend of expressing her feelings for Will aware of the fact that it would likely make her ineligible for the chance of life. When Will lets her know about her fate, she begins to cry hysterically begging for another chance. But Will is helpless and fulfils her desire of riding a bike down a street.
Kyo and Will set up a set of screens and a projector along with a stationary bike and she mounts the bike with headphones experiencing the street noises and the petals of the flower in her face. After Maria, Will also finds Alexander to be unfit for the position because of his laidback, easygoing ways and lack of empathy who just want to have beers and hang out. When he informs Alexander, he reacts angrily alluding to Will’s hypocrisy for judging people when he has never performed anything meaningful in his own life. When Will offers to recreate a moment for him, he refuses and goes out into the deserted landscape to meet the fate of the rejected souls.
WILL’S PERSISTENT QUEST FOR ANSWERS
Alongside the storyline of the selection of the best soul from five contenders, there is Will at the center of the narrative trying to find the reason for Amanda’s suicide. Will’s quest of Amanda’s sudden death throws light into his own past life on Earth. Will once had been alive and was unfit to live in the world by his own standards and ended up committing suicide.
When Emma insists on knowing more about Will, Kyo, the assistant of sorts, says that he had watched Will when he was alive and described him as “Talented, but struggled his whole life to fit into a world different from him. Did have love inside him. Maybe too much. Too much love, no one to give it to.” And that shows the reason why he rejected Maria because the love he gave to the world only brought sadness, pain, and suffering for him. Will was not liked by those around him and he developed a feeling of self-loathing and worthlessness. Will rejected Mike because he doesn’t want Mike to experience the same hatred and contempt which was inside him.
Will is obsessively watching the tapes of Amanda to decipher the reasoning for her death, but everything turns futile. He tells Kyo that Amanda had bad moments but she handled them well. And he also tells that she rarely cried and only did when she played the violin. And Will suspects and wonders out loud if there was a part of his favorite soul that she was always hiding. With the help of a nearby interviewer Colleen who gave life to Amanda’s cousin Cecily,
Will finds the existence of a suicide note left behind by Amanda before the crash. The note said, “My soul was born without an immune system. My heart was too open and I didn’t know how to protect it. I’m sorry that my smile wasn’t a smile, just a mask.” Will is distressed because he couldn’t see a warning sign watching her for twenty-eight years and considers it his own failure. Kyo tries to convince Will that he couldn’t have done anything to change her fate but he still hurts because he was the one who sent Amanda to the “shithole” to survive. Will burns Amanda’s file and prepares himself for the final selection. Who will have the chance for life – Emma or Kane?
NINE DAYS MOVIE ENDING EXPLAINED:
THE VERDICT – SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
As Will prepares himself for the final verdict, Kyo argues for Emma as she is full of life and hope even though she resists the mind games of Will. But Will decides to choose Kane instead since he doesn’t want another soul to be a prey or victim like Amanda whom he let down by choosing her. On the last day, a delicious dinner is served where everyone shares a disgusting story. Kane shares a news story he watched on television about two middle-school who went missing but were later found to be raped and murdered by their 60-year-old English teacher and buried in his backyard. And when asked about why he did it, he said he was in love with them. Emma argues with Kane for telling a tragic story and they differ in their worldview as Emma has noticed only the good the world has to offer while Kane watched the evil things happening in the world where someone hurts someone else every single day. Emma, in contrast, shares a funny story involving a woman and a gigantic mass of poop.
As the last task, Will asks both Emma and Kane to tell why the other person doesn’t deserve to be alive. Emma walks out without answering and gets rejected and Kane, the rationalist, is chosen to be born, to have a new beginning. When Will offers Emma the last experience, she writes down something in the paper which Will refuses to do. It was the performance Will did in his high school as part of a theatre group when he became one with everyone who was watching when he felt he was no longer invisible.
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Emma declines the last experience and decides to walk out alone. Will later finds a note left by Emma in which she thanks him for the nine days. She also feels sorry for him that life hadn’t gone the way he wanted and he had experienced a lot of pain in his life. She wrote all the beautiful moments and memories she had experienced during the nine days. Will finds all the happy memories written all over the house. Regretfully, he searches for Emma and finds her walking through the desert. He fulfills her last desire by passionately rendering selections from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” which celebrates the self and appreciates life on Earth.
NINE DAYS MOVIE THEMES EXPLAINED:
THE STUDY OF FREE WILL AND THE HUMAN CONDITION
Nine Days offers a critical study of self-determinism and the existentialist perception of the human condition. Will, the selector of soul, decides the right candidate to be born, acting as the judge and jury. However, the chosen soul or the one gifted with life exercise free will in their choices that fulfill their desires. Will, as the proxy of God or the supreme being, chooses souls which meet the criteria to survive on Earth, but he also fails because the actions of a self are determined by itself.
Amanda was the pride and joy of Will and he was proud when she performed in big concerts. But she was alone and isolated in the world and chooses to end her life. Another soul chosen by Will named Rick gets bullied often and eventually responds with retaliatory violence. Though Will gives them a fruitful environment of creativity and love, the social surrounding and one’s own actions define the human condition. It raises concerns and concerns about the divine as Will as the emissary or stand-in of God cannot control the fate of the individuals. It also scrutinizes Will’s distress when he watches how these souls fare in this cruel and merciless world where Will himself was a victim. The souls who are endowed with reason and conscience are free to follow their hearts to carry out sinful choices or virtuous actions.
APPRECIATE THE SIMPLE THINGS OF LIFE
Nine Days is a reminder to appreciate the improbability of our existence and the need to appreciate and celebrate the simple things in life. Emma’s character symbolizes the need to celebrate the happy memories and moments one can experience in the world. In her limited time of existence, that is nine days, she chooses to focus on the little things in life and is thankful for her transient life.
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Emma with her unending positivity and childlike optimism finds happiness in making others happy. She probes into the life of Will and tries to find what made him unemotional and detached and even provides him with a glimpse of joy when her happy memories are shared with him for which he says thank you by reciting the monologue. Emma is someone who wants you to believe that existence is grace and life is a miracle even when we have to suffer on the battlefield of life. We also witness the rejected souls appreciating the beauty of life when they enjoy riding a bike on a street or a day on the beach.
ADDRESSING THE AMBIGUOUS ELEMENTS AND QUESTIONS
The film raises several ambiguous and enigmatic questions about Oda’s worldbuilding which are left to the imagination of the spectators. It is unaddressed where the souls come from and where they go when they are denied existence. It is also left unanswered about the past tragic life of Will and how he became “a cog in the wheel”. The spectators are also directionless on what happens after the souls are chosen though Will tells Kane that he will feel his senses becoming unbearably sharper and stronger and that he will forget Will and whatever has happened in the primordial purgatory. But Will is given the affirmation that “you’ll still be you” indicating that souls arrive on Earth with their attitudes and sensibilities in place. Another uninvestigated aspect is why Amanda is the only soul who remembered Will in her childhood when she drew a painting of him and called him a friend.
Another intriguing question is raised by Kyo when asks Will at one point: “What if we, the watchers, are being watched somewhere else by another set of watchers, who are likewise being watched? And so on and so forth, all the way up?” Kyo’s sudden epiphany makes us question the hierarchies involved in the cycle of life. It also delves into the question of whether we are living an existence of voyeurism where we are constantly watched and judged by a figure like Will who has chosen us. The film also asks questions about the nature and meaning of being, what makes life worthy of living, and the merits and drawbacks of the depth of sensibility and awareness.
In this layered metaphorical exploration of existence, Oda addresses the spiritual and existential question – who gets born and why? This cerebrally-stirring film gives a novel turn to the natural selection of Darwin by making Will the authority who picks the souls through different strategies. It can also be read as Oda’s relationship with cinema as it imparts wisdom about existence through innumerable lives just like the candidates learned about existence and different lives through the television screen. This deeply cathartic and empathetic narrative is a tearjerker that would melt even the unfeeling souls with its wonderful score and imaginative existentialism.