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Who will save your soul? The decider in the haunting film ‘Nine Days’

The rewards are great for viewers who can go with the movie’s bold concept.

Will (Winston Duke, left) questions Kane (Bill Skarsgard), a soul hoping to be born on Earth, in “Nine Days.”
Sony Pictures Classics

Think of Will as the Gatekeeper. The Ultimate Gatekeeper.

If you’re a hopeful, nascent soul yearning to cross over into the land of the living, you’re going to have to pass muster with Will and pass the battery of tests he assigns to you over the course of nine days, at which point you’ll either get the good news that you’re about to be born — or you’ll be told this is the end of the road for you, and you’re slated to disappear into eternal nothingness.

Such is the existential and poetic and haunting nature of Japanese Brazilian writer-director Edson Oda’s feature film debut, which is like a much heavier, live-action version of “Soul” crossed with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” This is a movie that introduces you to a bold and original concept and asks you to just go with it, and if you’re willing to take the leap of faith (in more ways than one), you’ll find this to be a unique and special fable.

“Nine Days” exists entirely in a kind of Before Land — a sparse landscape dotted by the occasional modest house here and there. Winston Duke’s Will lives and works in one of those houses, where he interviews a number of unborn souls over the course of a little more than a week, and then decides which one of them will get to live on Earth. (They’ll be newborns, with no memories of this time.) These souls are seen in the form of adults and they just are; there’s no explanation for how they were formed, and how could there be?

They’re all given names, so Will have something to address them by during their nine-day test. Tony Hale is Alexander, who aims to please and has a quick wit but seems a little too desperate. Bill Skarsgard is Kane, whose responses to Will’s questions indicate he has self-preservation instincts that will serve him well in the cold and tough and cruel real world. Then there’s Zazie Beetz’ Emma, who already seems filled with life and has an endless curiosity about things and appears to be the perfect candidate to become a person — but Emma’s efforts to get Will to be more human might work against her.

Also aspiring to life on Earth is Emma (Zazie Beetz), who urges Will to be more human.
Sony Pictures Classics

You see, Will was once among the living. Now he’s in this job, apparently for eternity, and while he truly cares about the souls he promotes — he watches their progress on Earth via a stack of vintage TV sets stacked against the wall — he’s in a kind of limbo state as well, either unwilling or unable to acknowledge the beauty and the wonder of life. (Benedict Wong does a strong turn as Will’s associate, Kyo, who has never been a person and envies Will’s experiences. In some of the most moving sequences in the film, Will and Kyo create fantasies for the souls that didn’t make the cut, affording them one simple and beautiful glimpse into what life would have been like, whether it’s a carefree bicycle ride or a walk along the beach, before they disappear forever.)

This is all tricky stuff, but writer-director Oda handles the material in a relatively straightforward and surprisingly accessible manner, and the brilliant work from Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz makes it easy to believe that he’s a formerly living person and she’s someone hoping to become a living person, and in the short nine days during which their paths cross, they can learn from each other in this very strange and scary and beautiful place.