MPAA Rating: R
USCCB Rating: NA
Reel Rating: 3 out of 5 reels
Most films contain a standard three act/eight sequences structure that is easy to discern and even easier to digest. Occasionally, however, filmmakers get brave and produce a picture that doesn’t follow the usual template or gives easy answers, instead allowing the audience to sit with questions, allowing viewers to explore the world rather than be guided by a forceful hand. Terrance Malick’sn 2011 film The Tree of Life is probably the best example of this, and it is the only film I’ve seen in which the characters are viewed from God’s perspective.
While Nine Days, written and directed by Edson Oda, is far more traditional in its narrative, it also attempts to explore some of the great mysteries of the life beyond. Mostly, it succeeds.
Will (Black Panther’s Wilson Duke in his first starring role) is a mid-level celestial bureaucrat assigned to monitor the lives of roughly a dozen humans as they live out their earthly existence. He does this through a series of 1980’s-era television screens and records their best moments in a vast library of VHS tapes. As the film begins, his favorite subject Amanda has just died in car accident, and Will assembles a group of roughly ten candidates to fill her vacancy. He will put these men and women through a nine-day trial period before whittling down his decision to a single soul. This “spiritual boot camp” involves interviews, ethical conundrums, and observing human in the field.
As the week progresses, the film focuses on four candidates. There’s Alexander (Tony Hale) the jokester who is endless entertained of oddness of humanity, Mike (David Rysdahl) the dreamer who loves beaches and sunsets, Kane (Bill Skarsgård) the pragmatist who wants to right all the wrongs he sees, and Emma (Zazie Beetz) the rebel who questions everything Will does. They all have strengths and weaknesses, but only one will get a chance to live.
Right from the start there are so many questions about how this universe operates, but the film moves quickly, giving only minimal information. The beings in Nine Days don’t directly correlate to established Judeo-Christian revelation but with more general entities like the anthropomorphic forms in Soul. These beings have virtually no control over the humans they observe, which makes their task of choosing who “passes muster” more important. Will’s criteria isn’t made known at first, but Emma, through her constant prodding, is able to draw some glimpses. Most of Will’s fellow colleges are transcendent, yet Will once has a life on Earth, which plays a role in his discernment. This approach, while sometimes frustrating, helps the narrative. The audience is always eager for more info and quickly becomes invested in these characters, partially because it’s never made clear what happens to candidates who fail.
The notion of pre-mortal existence has been a favorite question of many theologians for centuries. Pantheistic religions teach that the soul reincarnates; thus, our personality quirks came from previously existences. Belief in a spiritual existence prior to conception plays a significant role in Mormon cosmology. But the Judeo-Christian tradition holds that the soul is created at the moment of conception, and our personality develops though our experiences and choices. “The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God — it is not “produced” by the parents — and also that it is immortal…” (CCC, 366). While God is omniscient, we have the free will to choose our path. Thus, this “trial period” occurs through the course of our whole lives, not prior.
Will’s decision ultimately comes down to Emma or Kane. Kane is brave, honest, and forthcoming; he is the obvious choice. Yet Will feels more attached to Emma, who more closely resemble his own personality – and Amanda’s. That’s the problem. It becomes apparent that Amanda’s accident was an intentional suicide. Will keeps going over the tapes to find a warning sign, but there is none. He blames himself for picking her and resolves to not make the same “mistake” again. Emma is too uncertain, too impulsive; she might do the same.
But no life is a mistake. While Amanda’s choice was tragic, she still deserved her shot. She was loved by God, who doesn’t predetermine destinies but allows all people “to grow together until the Harvest,” something Will seems to understand by the end. Nine Days isn’t a great theological treatise, but it is a good theological trampoline, launching its audience into the realm of spiritual seeking, a realm few seem to want to investigate but all desperately need.
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