Each applicant is told: “You are being considered for the amazing opportunity of life.”
It isn’t some infomercial pitch, though it is literally the opportunity of a lifetime. The applicants are souls, existing in a kind of ethereal waiting-room, a limbo outside the fishbowl of our reality. They are auditioning for the amazing opportunity to be born.
The person telling them this is the protagonist of Nine Days: Will, played by Winston Duke in a sharp departure from his most famous role as a Wakandan warlord in Black Panther. Will is a kind of divine bureaucrat, an admissions officer to the school of life. His job—“duty” or “fate” are probably better words—is to interview souls to determine which ones should make the cut. There are a lot more souls seeking admission to life than there are spots available. If a soul gets picked, he or she will show up on Earth as a baby. “No memories,” Will tells each of them. “But you'll still be you.”
Will is just one of presumably countless “interviewers” each assigned a dozen or so souls to select and then monitor, on old-fashioned TV sets, until they die. He records their lives on VHS tapes he stores in filing cabinets, presumably for eternity. When their lives end, the TV screen suddenly switches to one of those old test patterns until a new selection can be made.
We don’t know what qualifies an interviewer for the job. Indeed, it’s possible that the job itself might be a punishment or a form of purgatory. (I honestly can’t decide.) But the one qualification we’re given is that interviewers need to have been alive once, too. Will takes his duties more seriously than others with his job description. He is a relentless notetaker, jotting down the quotidian details of the souls he sent to Earth. There’s plenty of food in his fridge, but he doesn’t eat or drink—there’s no physical need for either. And while it seems for much of the film like he refuses to indulge because he’s a workaholic, it turns out that he also doesn’t want to be reminded of what it was like to be alive (which is why he’s a workaholic).
That is the key to understanding Winston Duke’s portrayal of Will. He’s weighted down by remorse—not just for the fate of his favorite soul on Earth, but a deeper regret for his own wasted potential while alive. It suffuses the film and Will alike with a melancholy fog. Duke is perfectly cast as a soul weighed-down by his own regrets and reservations. He is a kind of an undamned Sisyphus who owns, if not relishes, his fate as an eternal admissions officer for humanity.
The applicants are played by adult actors who, we are told, are anywhere from minutes to hours old. We don’t know how they were born into this before life realm. They show up at the door of Will’s little cottage in the middle of a desert, eager to prove they deserve their shot. The tryout period is nine days—hence the title of the film—but only the final two make it that far. The rest, one by one, are informed they didn’t make the cut and thus will be consigned back to nothingness.
The central dilemma Will faces is that there is no objective criteria, no playbook he must follow. The decision of who gets life is entirely his. The first task applicants face at the beginning of the interview process is to answer a question that “has no right answer.” It’s a version of the trolley problem or Sophie’s Choice.
Will asks each soul to imagine they have a beloved 11-year-old son.
He tells them: “You and your son are prisoners of war in a concentration camp. Your son has been caught trying to escape by a sadistic guard.”
Will then assumes the persona of the guard and puts the imaginary son on a chair with cord tightly wrapped around his neck. He tells the applicant: “You must push away the chair and hang your own child or I will kill him, you, and all of the other prisoners.”
“What do you do?” Will asks, sometimes shouting menacingly when the applicant hesitates.
Each soul struggles to answer, and each struggles even more to explain why they chose their course of action. We’re never told what the right answer is, never mind the answer Will was looking for. Other tests are intended to tease out the moral anatomy of these souls. Do they have an appreciation for life? What kind of life? One applicant hungers for companionship. Another wants to experience nature. Another has a powerful yearning to fight—including violently—injustice.
And this illuminates the crisis Will grapples with. He can pick “better”—gentler, kinder, more enlightened—souls to send to Earth, but Earth will remain fallen. At one point he says in furious frustration, “I can keep sending flowers but others send pigs to eat them.” (I’m quoting from memory).
Nine Days incorporates an enormous amount of philosophy without being ostentatious about it. This “pre-existence” realm has roots going back to Plato and has echoes in various religious faiths. There are notes of existentialism and transcendentalism and no doubt more.
The movie is not for all summer moviegoers. The deliberate pacing and atmosphere, the constant tension between showing and telling, do not add up to everyone’s idea of cinematic escapism.
But for me, this was precisely the kind of escapism I craved. Most movies these days give the audience what they want—good and hard and loud. Nine Days gives what a lot of us need. It is at once uncomfortable and uplifting, cerebral and sensual, and most of all, simply unlike any other movie you’ve seen in a long while. After all the lockdowns and disruptions of life, Nine Days is a remarkable reminder of how lucky we all are to be alive.
And on that note, in the space remaining, I want to focus on one philosophical concept that screamed out, at least to me: the original position.
John Rawls is the most famous modern expositor of this idea. In A Theory of Justice, he asks the reader to imagine a similar kind of pre-existence where souls wait to be born into humans. In this limbo they are behind a “veil of ignorance.” They do not know whether they will be born rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, handicapped or healthy. Again, not knowing how you will fare in the genetic or socioeconomic lottery, what kind of society would you want to be born into? What system would give you the best odds of living a full and meaningful life?
If you knew you would be born a genius or a king or a star athlete, it would be a very different choice than if you had just as much chance—more, in fact—of being born dimwitted, or crippled, or into crushing poverty. What is the best way to hedge the risk? To create the most opportunities to find meaning or fulfillment or to realize your potential.
The bargain in Nine Days isn’t quite Rawlsian, of course. The applicants can see the world, or at least the slices of it made visible by the TV screens in Will’s living room. But, still, they don’t know what bodies they will get or what circumstances those bodies will be born into.
But they do know they will be born into somebody. They know they will get the opportunity to live life and to appreciate all that life can offer, even if they can’t avail themselves of everything on that menu.
Again, I want to avoid spoilers, but the overriding message of the film is that life is, well, not quite everything. But it is the only thing that matters, at least for these souls. Not every soul gets even one life to live, but the chance of having that one life is the whole ballgame.
And that’s why Nine Days is a staggeringly pro-life movie. I mean that in every sense, including the way we use that term today. I would dearly love to have seen how a test audience would have reacted if, after the winning applicant is sent down to Earth to inhabit a baby in the womb, and just as the in-utero view from its eyes appears on one of the old TV sets in Will’s room, its chance at life was snuffed out in an abortion.
I very much doubt Edson Oda, the screenwriter and director, had this kind of pro-life message in mind when he made the film. He’s said in interviews that the inspiration for Will was his uncle who died at a young age before Oda could rekindle their relationship. But that doesn’t matter. Nine Days deftly leaves it to the audience to take whatever meaning they find in it. For most, that message is about making the most out of life in a way that leaves you with the fewest regrets. It deliberately, almost obsessively, avoids anything that could be confused for traditional Christian theology. Will doesn’t work in heaven or hell. He is no angel and there are no pearly gates to be found in the bleak Utah landscape where Nine Days was filmed. Indeed, there’s more of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return in the questions it raises than anything in the Christian Bible.
And that is one of the things I admire most about the film and its pro-life message. Many people—on both sides of the abortion debate—think that the case against abortion is solely religious. But one can craft a pro-life argument just as easily from the gray and coldly antiseptic tools bequeathed to us from Sartre or science. You only need the eyes, or TV monitor, to see the amazing opportunity of life.