What a Life Is For

One standard for whether a film is good or not is how long it sticks around in your consciousness. When I watched After Life, it lingered on the edges of my mind for days afterward. There, those who have died must choose one memory from their lives to relive (watch) for eternity. Borrowing heavily from the idea of an in-between reality, as well as the recreation of a particular memory (in this case, someone else’s) Nine Days (2020; for purchase on Amazon; I watched it on an Alaska Airlines flight) approaches a similar idea from the opposite side: “people” (souls) who are interviewed to see which of them will enter life and be born.  

We find Will (Winston Duke) watching old-school televisions, recording peoples’ lives on VHS tapes. Each of the screens represents a “soul” whom he has chosen to be born. One person, Amanda (Lisa Starrett), catches his attention because he identifies with the mystery of her life, and with one of her choices in particular. When Will needs to fill the “position” of a person who dies, he interviews several people in order to choose someone to be born. These are souls with an already-given sort of character, and he tells them that, if they are chosen, they will be them, but they will not remember any of their prior “existence.”  

Like a Kore-eda film, we remain interested in the characters, even though the plot moves slowly at times before it comes quickly to its climax in the last 20 minutes. It comes close to melodrama or sentimentality several times, but the strong acting keeps it from drifting across that line. Duke and Zazie Beetz (Emma), along with Benedict Wong (Kyo) and Bill Skarsgård (Kane) all imbue their characters with enough depth that we don’t feel like we’re watching a morality play about “living a full life.”  

Will’s interaction with Emma and Kane, as the final two candidates, turns the film toward a broader consideration of human nature. Emma and Kane represent the two perspectives between which Will himself is caught: in disposition, he is drawn toward a positive view of human nature, but his experience in life inclines him toward a more fully negative evaluation of human beings. The viewer is caught identifying with one or the other in terms of how we view the world: is it a “shit-hole” as Will tells Kyo at one point? Or should we focus on the beautiful and good, as Emma does?  

I tend toward a rather pessimistic view of human beings, at least when they are left to themselves. Obviously, that has a theological foundation in the Lutheran view of original sin and human depravity, but it is easy to sympathize with Will and Kane as they observe the way people act. It is much harder (at least for me) to identify with Emma’s (and, to a large extent, Maria’s [Arianna Ortiz]) much more optimistic view of the world’s goodness and beauty.  

Finally, Nine Days, like After Life, is not really about the alternate, purgatorial backdrop for the plot, but about what makes a good life. As writer/director Edson Oda characterized it (see the interview on the IMDB page for the film), we often pursue some kind of achievement or goal within life, without recognizing the great gift that is simply being born. If you know me, you know I do not usually gravitate toward optimistic or happy films, but the final scene of Nine Days moved it for me from 3 ½ stars to 4. And you might well find yourself considering the implications of the film for days afterward.