Nine Days and Numbering Our Own

Micah Rickard

The new film Nine Days offers its characters the opportunity of a lifetime. Literally.

Will (Winston Duke) is a meticulous, solitary man with a special task: he interviews beings (souls?) and chooses which of them will get the chance to experience life (as we know it). When he’s not interviewing, Will watches a wall of television sets which show the lives of those he’s previously chosen. He takes notes on their experiences, observes their choices and schedules, and watches their growth across the span of a lifetime. After tragedy strikes one of these people, a new set of beings arrives at his isolated house. These beings are not yet alive, though they do have identities, personalities, and bodies. Each is hopeful for the opportunity to experience existence, but only one can be chosen.

Written and directed by Edson Oda, Nine Days declares itself right from the start to be an existential film, a calculated reflection on what makes a life—and what makes a life worth living. While placing itself firmly within this framework, the film also dances around other philosophical ideas. Are we primarily our personality or our actions? Is a good life one that’s filled with achievements or one that’s thoroughly enjoyed?

During his time with each being, Will presents numerous moral quandaries, asking how they would react in drastic situations. But the film also takes a more experiential turn. Will tells the beings that, in experiencing life, all of their senses, emotions, and perceptions will become sharper than they can currently imagine. He gives them each a notebook, tasking them with watching the lives on the TV screens, and writing down what they see, what they like, what they don’t like. Later, he asks some of them to choose specific moments that they would like to experience. The ones they choose are beautiful but common: riding a bike, feeling sand and surf washing over feet. In giving the characters such intense desire for these experiences, Nine Days reminds us that even mundane moments are primed with beauty.

This is exemplified most powerfully in the character of Emma (Zazie Beetz), who catalyzes the movie as she constantly throws off Will’s methods. When faced with hypothetical dilemmas, Emma insists that she can’t answer without actually living in a situation. Likewise, Will’s attempt to teach the beings to be curious as they watch the lives on screen is a lesson Emma doesn’t need to learn—she simply practices, even turning her curiosity toward Will himself. Despite her non-living status, Emma is the most human character in the film, giving complete attention to the world around her. Juxtaposed against the others, she represents the difference between considering life and living it. She revels in the taste of a peach and—when Will declines one for the logical reason that he’s not hungry—she explains that’s not really the point of eating a peach. Emma’s attention and joy exhort us to consider the meaning inherent in our own lives.

Nine Days declares itself right from the start to be an existential film.

These truths are at the heart of Tish Harrison Warren’s book Liturgy of the Ordinary, a reflection on spiritual formation through everyday rhythms. Warren attends to overlooked habits like making the bed, eating leftovers, checking email, and sitting in traffic to consider the meaning inherent in each moment. Like Emma, Warren is attentive to the particularities of embodied life: “Christ didn’t redeem my life theoretically or abstractly,” she writes. Rather, Christ redeemed Tish. Christ redeemed me. Our specific redemption is a reality of overwhelming grace and love. Like the being Will ultimately chooses, in Christ we are given the surprising opportunity to experience an entirely new life.

This particular redemption gives stunning import to every small action that we take. As Warren writes, “What if days passed in ways that feel small and insignificant to us are weighty with meaning and part of the abundant life that God has for us?” If this is true, then eating a peach can teach us to delight in God’s goodness. Riding a bike through falling leaves can train us to number our days and consider the time we have been given. Standing at the edge of the sea can grow a peaceful humility as we meditate on the vast water.

These “insignificant” rhythms of life actually matter greatly to our growth as people—especially as followers of Christ. As James K.A. Smith notes in Desiring the Kingdom, “All habits and practices are ultimately trying to make us into a certain kind of person.” These small sensations train us, forming our habits and desires and, ultimately, us. As Nine Days demonstrates, these moments are brought into our grasp by attentiveness. Living attentively helps us believe, as Warren describes, “that in these small moments God meets us and brings meaning to our average day.” Emma practices that attentiveness and, in doing so, helps Will (of all “people”) remember what it means to be alive.

For all its generative ideas, Nine Days doesn’t quite cohere into an effective whole. Its reflection is a little too calculated and thus a little too abstracted from the beauty in which it seeks to revel. The cast is talented and arresting (beyond Duke and Beetz, Benedict Wong, Bill Skarsgård, and Tony Hale give strong supporting turns), but the script often isolates the actors, giving little room for dynamic interactions. Still, in reflecting on what makes a life and by considering the wonder and weight of our everyday moments, Nine Days provides us with a rich meditation.

In the end, Nine Days calls us toward care, echoing the call we have as God’s people to a faithful, spiritual life in the everyday. It is a gift: a life that’s meaningful to God down to the smallest moments. Even the most routine action can be purposeful. The mundane can be astounding. To notice the beauty in the everyday, to see the vitality of small choices, is to bring the work of care into our lives, giving attentiveness to how each moment can form us as God’s people. So let’s remember the wonder of water between our toes. Let us eat a peach—and rejoice.

Topics: Movies