Writer/ director Amy Seimetz might not take an acting role in her new film, but as her protagonist shares a name with her creator, we can fairly assume there’s a fair amount of Seimetz in her fictional counterpart. How much exactly is unclear as, though She Dies Tomorrow is undoubtedly a personal movie, Seimetz’s style is so ambiguous and the story imparted in such a Delphic manner it allows for a myriad of interpretations. It also makes it hard to make a clear connection beyond soaking in the amorphous sense of pessimism that shrouds every aspect like decades of dust.
Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) moves into a new home, but she’s far from happy. Her friends are baffled, believing she should be energised by the move. They don’t know that Amy woke up that morning overcome with the certainty that she will die the next day. This devastating existential paranoia proves contagious, infecting first her friend Jane (Jane Adams), who then spreads the terror to her brother (Chris Messina), his wife (Katie Aselton) and their friends.
The film resists any concrete answers in terms of what causes this fear, or even if it’s anything other than some complex, collective hysteria – some millennial update of the dancing plague of Strasbourg. Instead, it focusses on the reactions of the sufferers, sucking the viewer in with up close and personal camera work and cleverly insidious sound design. During these chillingly subjective moments, you can understand the certainty they feel, aided no end by the expressive faces of Sheil, Adams and the rest as they bathe in the mysterious blue and red lights that signal the fateful revelations.
When the camera retreats a little, doubt enters the frame. We can then see how Amy and Jane are viewed by others, which introduces concerns of mental health, and how a previous episode means you’re likely to be forever dismissed on those grounds. Amy deals with her fear by drinking – ‘relapsing’, as Jane puts it – dressing up in a sparkly dress, listening to the Mondo Boys‘ version of Mozart’s ‘Lacrimosa‘ on a loop, and researching funeral urns online.
Jane turns up at her brother’s house in her pyjamas, interrupting her sister-in-law’s birthday party with a twitchy mania they dismiss as her usual persona. Adams (Happiness, Little Children) is terrific at the dazed, almost elated way that Jane expresses her belief. This scene is one of the few that grounds the film in any way, and injects some welcome black humour into the proceedings, even if it remains entirely within the fatalistic tone – and any laughter it generates is bitter and incredulous.
Seimetz is best known for her acting, flitting with ease between big-budget fare (Alien: Covenant, Pet Sematary) and smaller indies (Upstream Colour, Lean on Pete), but as she revealed in a recent episode of Pure Cinema Podcast, writing and directing are her first loves. As with her debut, Sun Don’t Shine, She Dies Tomorrow is indicative of an uncompromising voice that operates entirely on its own terms. Going forward, bigger budgets or studio projects may test that independent spirit and force her to adhere more to narrative conventions. For now, she is carving a niche for herself and bringing in lots of excellent people she’s worked with down the years who are adept at experimental, improvisational work, like Sheil (Kate Plays Christine).
How appealing a provocative, abstract art film soaked in neon and dread will prove is debatable, given reality currently claws at our nerves like kittens at a curtain. She Dies Tomorrow nevertheless dials into these weird times like very few other films, albeit accidentally. Its own dreamlike, amorphous nature means that it is easy to read it as a Covid-19 allegory, as just one of many interpretations, even though the virus was not in the public sphere when the film was conceived. It could conceivably be a study in manic depression, the spread of fake news and public hysteria, trauma from abusive relationships, or simply about the human capacity for dealing with the inevitable ineffable.
Just as its vagueness is a strength in terms of the sheer variety of ideas, it also dooms She Dies Tomorrow to being one of those arthouse darlings that inspires more articles and chin-stroking than satisfied viewers. For all the themes and issues that may have some relevance, few actually stick – particularly on a level of emotional engagement. For a film that trades in existential horror, any human core there seems surrounded by a Teflon carapace that repels anyone from finding its heart. Amy Seimetz’s refusal to deal in a linear narrative, or even offer any conclusions is admirable, but it is easier to appreciate her vision than it is to enjoy her film.
Available on-demand from Fri 28 Aug 2020