This Precious Life

Hauntingly beautiful pre-life proposal might make you look at things differently

Nine Days
Starring Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong & Tony Hale
Directed by Edison Oda
Rated R
How to Watch: In theaters Aug. 6, 2021

A lot of people wonder what happens after we die. But do you think much about what happens before we’re born?

That’s the premise of this fantastical fable, an existential gem of a film in which a reclusive metaphysical middle manager interviews a group of new souls for a shot at the big show: real life.

The souls (including Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, Arianna Ortiz and Zazie Beetz) all look like fully formed adults, but they’re only a few days—or minutes, or hours—old. That’s how it is, here in the pre-life world.  

As the interviewer, Will (Winston Duke), puts them through a gauntlet of tests, trials and open-ended moral-ethical questions, he’s looking to fill a recently vacated slot in the real world—a young female violinist who died in an unfortunate accident. The candidates have nine days to prove themselves worthy of the position. Only one will be chosen, and that’s Will’s job.   

“You are being considered for the amazing opportunity of life,” he tells them. “If after this process, you are selected, you will have the chance to be born in a fruitful environment where you can grow, develop and accomplish.”

“Are you the boss?” Hale’s character asks him.

“I would say a cog in the wheel,” says Will.

We never learn much—anything, really—about that wheel, the bigger scheme of things outside the little isolated “house” where Will operates. It’s in the middle of a vast desert (the movie was filmed in Utah), and inside is a wall of old-school televisions and monitors. That’s where Will and his assistant, Kyo (Benedict Wong), who drops by every day, watch the real-world lives unfolding of all the previous candidates Will has successfully “placed.” He takes copious notes about what happens to them, good or bad, and he dresses up for their weddings, recitals and other life-event celebrations—as if he’s attending, too. Sometimes Kyo brings flowers.

Will records and catalogues everything on VHS tapes, stores all his notes in a room packed with metal file cabinets, and photographs candidates with a Polaroid camera. Will’s pre-life world appears, for some reason, to be stuck in the low-tech early 1980s.

The candidate souls all buckle down for their nine-day assignments. Hale (from TV’s Veep and Arrested Development) plays Alexander, who always finds something funny in everything. Beetz, from TV’s Atlanta and a supporting standout in Joker, is Emma, whose fascination with Will unsettles him, forcing him to confront his own troubled past—a past in which a recitation of Walt Whitman’s epic poem, “Song of Myself,” was pivotal. And it’s interesting to see Skarsgård, best known as the evil clown Pennywise in the terrifying It movies, in a much less threatening role. 

Zazie Beetz

Brazilian-American writer-director Edison Oda, whose background is mostly in advertising and short films, makes a smashingly impressive feature debut, filling it with lovely cinematic touches and coaxing graceful, sometimes powerful performances from his cast. Duke, a physically impressive actor who played a fierce warrior in Black Panther and the bumbling dad in Us, grounds the movie in Will’s melancholy mysteries; he becomes an imposing metaphor for the many unknowable things about life itself.

“Maybe there’s another parallel dimension,” Kyo says to Will. Perhaps the two of them are being “watched by someone else, who’s being watched by someone else, who’s being watched by someone else. It’s deep, isn’t it?”

It is, indeed. The movie isn’t interested in making any big statements about spirituality or religion; it’s broader and more mystical and—yes—deeper than that, with more questions than answers. It wants to make you think, to ponder, to wonder. The number nine, of course, is packed with symbolism: cats with nine lives, human pregnancies that last nine months, the numeral nine and its mathematical “magic.” In a Tarot deck, the ninth card is the Hermit—like Will, living alone in the desert.

The movie, which sometimes seems like a stage play given feature-film treatment, probably won’t be for everyone. The drama is slow-moving and somewhat static; nothing moves fast, no one gets into a brawl and there’s no blood, explosions, fights, shocks or scares. By most mainstream movie standards, some viewers might chalk it up as a bit of a snooze.

But this desert drama has a haunting, unique beauty, a strange but alluring spin on what might be just beyond—or come before—the veil of our human existence; it feels like a bracing shot of Twilight Zone in a retro martini glass, with a chaser of Disney-Pixar’s Soul, only with considerably more bite and grown-up grit, and a lot less whimsy. This beguiling peek into a strange corner of another “world” invites you to look at life, and reality itself, through a prism of alternative out-there possibilities.

As the candidates go through their testing, they learn about life, and living, from watching people on Will’s TVs. They learn about—and long to experience—little “real world” things, like bicycle rides, the feeling of being on a beach, eating a peach, relishing a beer or sharing a laugh over jokes with friends around a dinner table. They learn that life is made up of those little things, those moments that become lifetimes of memories.

“What is it like, to be alive?” Beetz’s candidate asks Will.

“Maybe you’ll find out,” he answers her. Maybe we all will, if we haven’t already.

You may not think much about where you came from, how you got here or what might have gone on before you popped out, into the world. But maybe someone like Will was watching you all along, and maybe he picked some soul—like Zazie Beetz or Tony Hale or Bill Skarsgård—who worked hard for days, expressly for the opportunity to be “you.”

Crazy? Well, maybe. Or maybe not.

No matter what you believe, Nine Days makes you think that getting here, being alive and feeling the full spectrum of being human, is no trivial thing. Life is precious; souls long for it, compete for it. So, ponder that—especially the next time you bite into a peach, feel the sand of a beach between your toes, or the wind on your face as you ride a bike, or laugh with your friends.

And say hi to Will, somewhere out there.

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