Producers: Jason Michael Berman, Mettie-Marie Kongsved, Laura Tunstall, Matthew Linder and Datari Turner   Director: Edson Oda   Screenplay: Edson Oda   Cast: Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, David Rysdahl, Arianna Ortiz, Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, Perry Smith and Geraldine Hughes   Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Grade: C+

Since Edson Oda’s debut feature is a deeply serious piece, it’s curious that the recent film it most calls to mind is an animated family movie,  Pixar’s “Soul.”  The the latter used the premise of pre-birth soul-searching as a springboard for a fast-moving lesson about the preciousness of life, and now “Nine Days” employs it for a mostly ponderous, only fitfully compelling drama that, in the final analysis, conveys the same basic message.

The film is set in a desolate desert where Will (Winston Duke), a dour, bespectacled fellow, lives in an isolated wood cabin.  One room is filled with file cabinets containing folders and VHS tapes, and the wall of another is covered with television monitors, each showing footage taken from the first-person perspective of different individuals as they go about their daily activities.  These images are being videotaped and stored for future reference.   

Will, we learn from conversations with his neighbor and assistant Kyo (Benedict Wong), is an assessor of souls.  The screens represent the ongoing lives of those he has selected for embodiment.  Whenever one of them dies, it is his responsibility to replace that person with another soul that he chooses from a group of candidates by posing a series of questions to them over the titular nine days.  The one he selects will then be incarnated as an infant; the others will cease to exist, though as a parting gift he allows each to experience an artificially constructed facsimile of an especially happy moment discussed during the test period—riding a bicycle through a town’s streets, for example, or walking along a beach and dipping one’s toes in the surf.

Much of the running-time in “Nine Days” is given over to Will’s examination of his five subjects, a varied lot.  Maria (Arianna Ortiz) is a romantic, sentimental sort, who at one point even fantasizes about a romance with Will.  She’s a contrast to Kane (Bill Skarsgård), a realist prone to make practical, sometimes brutal choices.  Alexander (Tony Hale) is a pleasure-lover who laughs easily, even when it’s not quite appropriate, while Mike (David Rysdahl) is a stern fellow with a chip on his shoulder.

Most fascinating of all to Will is Emma (Zazie Beetz), a deeply empathetic soul whose reluctance to provide straightforward answers to his scenarios puzzles him, and whose proclivity to turn the sessions around to probe into his past—Will was once alive, we learn, and apparently had a difficult time of it—he finds troubling.   Yet he’s drawn to her, and in the end she prods him to recall one of the few moments of joy from his time on earth, an impassioned declamation of a passage from Walt Whitman.   

A dark cloud hangs over the tests, however, since Will remains perplexed, even tormented, about the person the chosen  candidate will replace—his favorite subject, a violin prodigy named Amanda who apparently committed suicide by driving her car into a freeway overpass.  Will plays the tape of her death over and over again, trying to discern some reason why she would have decided to kill herself, and coming up empty.  Kyo tries to help him out of the doldrums, even going so far as to bring over another assessor who watches one of Amanda’s acquaintances to offer some insight into the dead woman’s state of mind, but to no avail.

One has to admire the skill with which Oda and his craft colleagues—production designer Dan Hermansen and cinematographer Wyatt Garfield—have fashioned the severe yet almost tactilely naturalistic pre-world in which Will is, in effect, trapped.  Its decrepit furnishings and creakily old-fashioned technology—VHS tapes, a primitive little soundstage on which Will uses stock footage displayed on a screen to simulate the parting experiences for candidates who are not chosen—have a certain rustic charm.  This is hardly the elaborately futuristic world of “Soul,” but its mysterious starkness is impressive.

Oda also secures affecting performances, especially from Duke, whose gravity gives way to something more exuberant only at the very end—and after he’s made an unexpected decision about which soul to pass along to life.  Antonio Pinto’s spare score contributes to the simple but otherworldly ambience.         

In the end, though, “Nine Days” fails to capitalize very effectively on the foundation it’s built.  The fact that it never fleshes out the rationale behind the system it depicts (is the number of humans supposed to remain stable?), or even behind Will’s mode of questioning (or his final decision) will exasperate some.  Why Will was chosen from previously embodied folks to do this work, and why Kyo is described as never having lived but is still around, are questions never addressed.  (One could, in fact, interpret the entire process simply as sort of a purgatory for Will, who must learn to appreciate life again before he can move on to some higher plane.)

But those kinds of ambiguities aren’t the real issue; leaving viewers puzzled can be a virtue.  The essential difficulties with “Nine Days,” rather, lie in its tone and pacing.  While it obviously intends to say something profound about the meaning of life, the level of discourse in it is actually quite shallow: the questions Will asks his candidates, for instance, mainly concentrate on bald scenarios in which they’re asked to predict how self-sacrificing or empathetic they might be in some fraught imaginary situation.  And the lack of genuine substance is exacerbated by the fact that as directed by Oda, and edited by Michael Taylor and Jeff Betancourt, the film moves so glacially.

So while the film is an effective exercise in style, in terms of content it actually offers less than meets the eye.