Nine Days takes place in the bardo before a soul is given life. Neo-souls are tested in various arbitrary trials during which they must prove to an arbiter that they are worthy of living on Earth. It’s easy to say Nine Days is about what it means to be alive, the nature of empathy, and the reasons that people have to live, but more specifically, Nine Days is about film itself. Nine Days is about watching movies.
In the film, over a period of nine days, an arbiter named Will (Winston Duke) interviews people for the opportunity of life. The questions he asks are about empathy and feeling, decision-making, situational understanding, learning, and adaptation. It’s a strange thought experiment where these half-formed potential creatures take on the challenge of understanding life, while having never actually been alive.
Will has been doing this for a while. The reason he’s interviewing all these people now is because one of the souls he previously selected for life has died. Amanda, a violin prodigy, took her own life on the morning of her debut concerto.
As Will questions the neophyte souls over nine days, he begins to obsess over Amanda’s life, reviewing the tapes he’s recorded during her time on Earth. He attempts to discover hints or clues that would indicate when she began to feel suicidal. The only way in which Will (and the other arbiters) can see their wards is through a wall of televisions; each screen showing a different soul they’ve chosen. The arbiters can also choose to manually record portions of these soul’s lives on VHS, creating a catalog of lived experience.
Over the course of the movie Will is preoccupied by these films. Will has an empty room in his house dedicated to projecting people’s lives on the wall, and he often immerses himself in the filmed experience. The wall of televisions is an ever-present set piece, taking up most of the living room, a focal point for both Will and the neo-souls. Will watches and records his chosen lives from his little house in an expansive never-where, observing all the people he’s chosen go forth as they attempt to survive in the real world.
The arbiters are angels of the exterior. They only see what happens to their souls when it happens on screen. They only see what’s in front of them, and even then Will and the other arbiters can’t watch everything. While these screens are like a first-person POV CCTV, recordings are intentional, and must be an active choice. Arbiters can only observe these people, obsessively cataloging the minutiae of lives through recordings. But, like in the movies, these arbiters don’t know what’s going on in their souls’ heads, what they’re thinking, or what they want. Just like a film audience, the arbiters have to assume, infer, and interpret.
As Will prepares his selections for life, he learns from his experiences with these other lives, comparing what he saw in the bardo to what he sees on screen. Will wants his selection process to give him insight into the kind of person he’s sending out into the world, trying to understand just what kind of movie he’ll watch once the soul is born, hoping to find a hint at the motivations that will end up hidden behind a television screen.
Many of the tasks that the neo-souls are asked to complete take place while watching the wall of televisions. During one of the souls’ first tasks, Will leads them to the televisions and hands them a notebook; “Write down what makes you happy,” he says. They sit and watch. Out of this they pull moments of joy, taken piecemeal from others’ lives. Like an editor cutting to the quick of a scene, each of these souls finds the parts of these movies that they love in flashes of inspiration and loveliness. Televisions become the only way that these souls learn about the ‘real’ world.
One of the souls, Emma (Zazie Beetz), fills up the entire notebook, citing things like laughter, sunshine, feet, grass, and buildings arranged in a row. Another candidate, Mike (David Rhysdahl) doesn’t write anything. Instead, he draws a picture of a beach scene he saw on one of the televisions. The script reads early on, “this woman knows things, but she’s never experienced them.” They are asked to learn how to live through these films. They learn how to vicariously imitate experiences, even giving themselves a glimpse of what they could have outside the bardo. Film becomes a window into possibility, a form of hope, and a method of inspiration.
The souls are given other assignments. In one interrogation, he projects images on a wall; a spider on an arm, a wallet on the ground, a kid being bullied, and he asks these souls… what would you do? Through these assignment the souls experience life through the movies. Over and over, film is central to the emotional development of these characters and Will uses film to help determine who they are and how they might act on earth. Even when the souls are answering Will’s questions in his office, without any televisions around, Nine Days will often intercut to the grainy VHS footage of what they’re describing. There are flashes of people at barbecues, riding a bike, putting brownies in a box in a production line. Again and again, the importance of film is all-encompassing. Watching film is literally the difference between life and… whatever else is out there.
Will is deeply attached to the VHS tapes he makes of his lives and views them as more than just tools for instruction. Getting VHS tapes to use in recordings is a process—Will and his constant companion in the bardo, Kyo (Benedict Wong), often go on foraging expeditions to a massive junkyard, collecting tapes for Will to use. The moments that Will captures on these tapes provide triggers for his emotional changes within Nine Days, giving us insight into what Will actually feels. We rarely get any indications of Will’s own emotions because of his position as a professional performing a job and for the audience, as well as the neo-souls, we are often left guessing about what he’s thinking. His emotions are clearest when he’s watching film, when he’s re-viewing these tapes.
His obsession over Amanda’s death is shown through a constant rewatching of her life. Will replays the recordings he’s made, trying to parse through what he sees now that she’s dead and what he thought he knew. His entire purpose hinges on finding answers in film.
For all the characters, finding meaning through film is an essential action. In every moment there is something to find. Something under the surface. There are things unsaid, unanswered, unasked. Finding what isn’t captured on film is part of deciphering what has been filmed.
A moment where Will gets real answers about Amanda’s death is when another Kyo invites another arbiter into his home. This arbiter sent one of Amanda’s cousins down to live, and this cousin received a suicide note from Amanda before she died. As Will watches this recording, he sees what he missed earlier. He sees what he couldn’t find in his own films. He gets angry, for the first time really angry, not just faking it to get a reaction from the neophyte souls. Seeing this suicide note laid out on the table, he sees his own failure. He didn’t see this. He didn’t figure it out. This particular moment captured in film is a culmination of all his fears, and even though the other arbiter tries to comfort him, her small offering, “sometimes, it’s hard to keep track of all of them,” does nothing for Will.
He failed to see this clue. His films don’t mean anything if he didn’t understand what they were showing him.
Later that night, Will takes the VHS tapes of Amanda’s life, all of them, and burns them. This is pure catharsis, a symbolic and actual letting go. The grief, the confusion, the hurt, all of it goes up in flames. Amanda’s life is not contained in the VHS tapes, but they are a key to understanding Will’s perspective on the world—to him, those VHS takes are Amanda. Film becomes something mythic, legendary, preservative. These films are everything he has of her, and he’s letting them go.
Even Kyo, who is not an arbiter, puts heavy emotional weight on film. In the beginning of Nine Days he shows up at Will’s house and asks if anything new has happened. He’s there to watch Amanda’s concerto. As he sits down and watches the televisions he sees another soul that Will has sent to earth—Louiza—trying on her wedding dress. He asks when the date is, and when Will responds, Kyo makes a note in his notebook, clearly planning to show up for the event. Will and Kyo plan their lives around these films. They mark ‘release dates’ and make sure to show up dressed correctly— Will even changes into a suit before Amanda’s concerto. Film is central to their existence, creating moments of anticipation and community in the bardo.
Nine Days doesn’t just focus on the act of watching film, but also on the act of recreating moments. Even if the characters can’t experience the world itself, the fantasy of experience is repeated. Under Will’s house is a basement that has been turned into a sort of soundstage. When he goes to souls and tells them that they have not been selected for life, he asks them to write down a moment that made them feel the most alive while watching the televisions and he says that he will work to recreate that moment for them. A goodbye. A simulacrum of a simulacrum.
When Mike — the man who drew the beach scene—asks to go to that beach, Will creates a beach in his basement. He builds a sandbox, finds a way to make a pool that leads up to the sands, and uses a projector and a recording to simulate the feeling of being at a beach. He leads Mike up to the fake-beach, and tells him to take his time. As Mike stands there, Will uses a paddle to simulate waves, and turns a spotlight on Mike, as if he were standing in the sun. Mike disappears while in the fantasy of an experience. Immersed in the ‘what could be’ of life, Mike returns to the bardo, having had at least a taste of what he imagined while watching television.
The second time we see Will do this it’s for a woman who wants to go on a bike ride. This time Kyo helps him out, and with the use of multiple projectors, a fan, a stationary bike mounted on an axis, and even set pieces, Will recreates an actual bike ride. It’s hard to explain the sheer emotion of this scene. The entire movie has been rendered in dull colors but this scene is full of vibrancy and wonder. It’s pinks and blues, it’s overwhelmingly lovely, and it’s entirely fake. Much like movies are made on soundstages, where clever effects can fool the audience into thinking that these characters really are in Paris or on Mars, this woman’s bike ride is completely fabricated.
But that doesn’t matter. To this woman, to Mike, to Will, and Kyo, this is the experience. It doesn’t matter if it’s real or fake or projected, it’s about how it makes these characters feel. This scene is almost identical to Oda’s short, A Sensorial Ride, which delivers the technical details of the scene but can’t compare to the rising emotion and craft of Nine Days. The experience is important, but it’s the emotions, reactions, and growth that gives the recreated moment meaning.
Towards the end of the film there’s a dinner with Will, Kyo, Emma, and the another candidate, a man named Kane (Bill Skarsgård). Each of the characters takes time to recount a funny story, but… none of these characters have ever been alive. They’re telling stories from the television, recreating the experience through their own lenses. Will doesn’t tell a story, and instead lets these souls, who have never experienced any of this, recount the stories as they know them, each of them adding in their own commentary, comedic timing, and even impressions. Much like a film will always editorialize what is being shown, all these characters are doing the same, reminding the audience that stories will always be filtered, that film will only ever be part of the story, that it’s how we react to it and what we remember that’s important.
Performance itself becomes a defining trait of Nine Days. Will is especially concerned with performance, both the evaluation of actions and the moments of acting. His first emotional trigger is, in fact, Amanda’s upcoming performance, which she never attends. He is constantly thinking about how people will perform on earth, as well as what their actions reveal while in the bardo.
All the recreations Will does are performative. There is a layer in between what is real and what is experienced. But it’s the performance that sells the story. Like movies, it’s about how committed the actor is to the part.
Will is also a performer. During one of the first evaluations, he tells the souls a story about a man in war camp threatening to kill their child. He stands and yells at the souls, becoming that evil man. It’s a shocking turn, and Winston Duke is exemplary, turning from mild-mannered into ferocious and dangerous in an instant. This is the first time we see Will performing, acting intensely to immerse the souls in simulated situations in order to evaluate their reactions.
Emma is constantly asking questions about Will’s life on earth, and he reveals that he was in a play when he was fifteen and it changed his life. We never know what Will became, but it’s clear that this performance, this moment of acting, was the singular most impactful moment of his life.
It’s this performance that Emma asks to be recreated when she’s eventually told that she hasn’t been chosen for life. Will refuses, and asks if she’ll choose something else. She decides to leave instead, heading out into the desert to disappear.
Emma doesn’t want recreations. Emma doesn’t want to pretend to ride a bike. She doesn’t want to stand by a sandpit and imagine it’s a sunrise. She wants the real thing. She wants emotion without filters. It’s a performance, but unlike the other requests, it’s not performative. Out of all the souls, she found life in the world she was living in, not the ‘real’ world on the screens.
We near the end of the film, the final scenes, the last moments of performance on screen. Will runs through the desert, trying to find Emma before she disappears. He finds her, turns his back, prepares, and this is the last performance, the final moments of Nine Days.
He turns and he performs. Will, the actor, embodies the monologue, power and soul. He recites from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, and this is the last act of Nine Days, giving us a performance that will move us to tears, that will show off all of Winston Duke’s prodigious skill, that makes us feel, deeply. This is a performance that brings us closer to living. It’s almost as if we were there.
By allowing a performance to be the final moment, Nine Days truly embodies the importance of film, which is what Nine Days has been hinting at the entire time. Nine Days is a meticulous, existential crisis of a movie, a film about film, the wonder of re-creation, the absolute absurdity of absorbing a story in an hour or two when there are whole, entire, beautiful, wonderful lives behind every single story.
And perhaps that’s what Nine Days is saying; our lives are like movies. Edited down to the core of who we are, spare lines discarded or forgotten, important moments skipped over until it’s too late, until someone points out a different perspective. When we think back on the jumbled mess of our lives, it’s flashing scenes and senses and re-constructed understandings of a moment. Nine Days, at its core, is about how we see ourselves in movies, how we understand living through empathy, and how we relate to the inexplicable act of being alive by watching others live on screen. Nine Days is about film and it’s about you.