When I was a boy, being trained to believe that an all-powerful god would one day transport me to an afterlife of neverending happiness, I spent many midnight hours kept awake by a paralyzing incomprehension: How could anything — Heaven, the universe, happiness — simply never end? I wondered why other people seemed undisturbed by the concept of infinity, and concluded that they simply must not have really thought about it.
Amy Seimetz’s arresting and perfectly executed She Dies Tomorrow is one of the very rare films that not only captures how an upsetting idea can take root in one’s mind, bringing everything else to a halt, but envisions that next step, in which the idea is successfully communicated to others. In this vision, each of us unwittingly carries an abyss around within us, waiting only for the trigger that will force us to stare into it. Movies like this are why arthouses exist, and why we’ll seek them out again as soon as it’s safe to breathe near our fellow humans.
Kate Lyn Sheil, star of Seimetz’s feature debut Sun Don’t Shine, returns here (as does her costar Kentucker Audley, in a smaller role). The fact that her character’s name is Amy invites viewers to read the movie’s first half-hour as some kind of expression of turmoil in the filmmaker’s own life: Amy stands alone in her house at night, playing Mozart’s requiem and sinking into the kind of obsessive observational state most often found when one is drinking at home alone. She plunges her fingers into soil outside, caresses the grain of a hardwood floor with her cheek.
But this isn’t ordinary melancholy. When her friend Jane (Jane Adams) arrives to say she’s worried about her, Amy tells her flatly that she’s going to die tomorrow. Presumably, she’s been relishing her last hours in the sensual world before she goes.
Nobody points out, now or after later developments, that Amy hasn’t said she’s killing herself tomorrow. She’s simply had a revelation, an epiphany Seimetz represents with oppressive flashing colors and indistinct voices coming from somewhere offscreen. And within an hour or two of her visit with Amy, Jane’s seeing the lights too.
The film’s arresting, mysterious midsection makes it clear that this may be less the story of one woman’s descent than of a contagion — an apocalyptic awareness that spreads from person to person like blood staining clothing. It’s both a rich metaphor and a fairly literal portrait of the current American psyche: Many of us have been numbed by end-of-the-world vibes since the last week of March, when this film was supposed to debut at the SXSW fest that never was. (It would’ve been a highlight.) Others of us have been in that state since late 2016. “I’m going to die tomorrow.” The next day: “I’m going to die tomorrow.” Continued bodily functions don’t entirely disprove the prediction.
As the film traces this psychic epidemic through Amy’s social circle, changing the lives of characters played by Chris Messina, Katie Aselton, Tunde Adebimpe and Jennifer Kim, it follows as Patient Zero takes her own, mostly solitary path. While indulging a couple of hedonistic whims and making a peculiar plan for the disposal of her remains, she’s also, maybe involuntarily, confronting her recent past. Fragmentary scenes from a failed relationship with Craig (played by Audley) hint at regrets and an ugly breakup without sharing details that might tie tonight’s crisis too firmly to the loss of a boyfriend. We’ll all think of lost loves when the bombs start to drop, but that doesn’t mean they started the war.
Throughout, Seimetz blurs lines between the depiction of interior emotional states and what could be scene-setting in a horror or slasher film. Multiple shots of doors left ajar literalize the failing boundaries between inside and outside, but this is not a picture destined to wrap things up tidily for the viewer. The director/actor’s intelligence has been unmistakable since her 2011 performance as the lead of Megan Griffiths’ The Off Hours, and subsequent work quickly demonstrated a willingness to venture into unfamiliar, challenging territory. She has acted in big-budget Hollywood films, but has never given any indication she wants to make that kind of product in her own behind-the-camera ventures.
The closest she’s come, the riveting first season of her collaborative TV series The Girlfriend Experience, used commercial polish and sex appeal toward subversive psychological ends. She Dies Tomorrow, by design, has a much more narrow appeal than that series. But it’s the movie one can imagine serious cinephiles watching thirty years from now — assuming, that is, humanity lasts that long.
Production company: Rustic Films
Distributor: Neon (At drive-in theaters Friday, July 31; on-demand August 7)
Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Chris Messina, Katie Aselton, Kentucker Audley, Tunde Adebimpe, Jennifer Kim
Director-Screenwriter: Amy Seimetz
Producers: Amy Seimetz, David Lawson, Jr., Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson
Director of photography: Jay Keitel
Production designer: Ariel Vida
Editor: Kate Brokaw
Composers: Mondo Boys
R, 84 minutes