Euripides once wrote that no man can confidently say he'll be living tomorrow. Amy’s sure she won’t be.
Played by the fearless actress Kate Lyn Sheil as an emotional avalanche waiting to happen, Amy is the “she” of “She Dies Tomorrow,” a recovering alcoholic with a handsome new boyfriend (Kentucker Audley) and a beautiful new house she hasn’t finished unpacking yet. But all these new beginnings come to an abrupt end one night when Amy is overwhelmed out of nowhere with the bone-deep certainty of her impending demise. She doesn’t know how it’s gonna happen, but it’s definitely happening. Tomorrow. Her best friend Jane (Jane Adams) is crushed to come over and find Amy off the wagon again, barefoot doing yardwork in a sequined dress and blasting Mozart’s “Requiem” on the turntable after an evening spent shopping for pretty cremation urns online. Jane wonders what the hell has gotten into her friend this time. A breakup? Another relapse? And then all of a sudden Jane can’t stop thinking about how she, too, is going to die tomorrow.
The oblique and, at times, mordantly hilarious sophomore effort from writer-director Amy Seimetz, “She Dies Tomorrow” is a philosophical horror film in which existential anxiety is as contagious as any airborne virus. We watch it silently spread through Amy and Jane’s circle of friends like a daisy-chain of doom, shattering social contracts and leaving characters forced to confront their mortality when they’d really rather be thinking about anything else. Dying is the one thing that everybody does, yet we all go about our days as if it only happens to other people. But what if that comfortable denial mechanism was rudely ripped away?
Much has already been written about this film’s eerily prescient properties, and it is a strange picture indeed to see during a pandemic. (Originally slated to play at this spring’s canceled SXSW Film Festival, “She Dies Tomorrow” was the last movie screened for a lot of New York critics before the city went into lockdown back in March. I can’t imagine a more unsettling sendoff.) But a lot of its power lies in Seimetz’s refusal to get bogged down by specifics. The movie is open-ended enough for you to swim around in it for a little while and find your own way to shore.
As a filmmaker Seimetz is seemingly allergic to exposition, leaving breadcrumb trails of story points and trusting the viewer to follow. Her 2012 debut “Sun Don’t Shine” (also starring Sheil and Audley) smushed the oft-romanticized outlaw-lovers-on-the-run formula into a squalid mystery about the impossibility of trust. Her cable TV spinoff of Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience” — which Seimetz co-wrote and alternated directing episodes with Lodge Kerrigan — was the rare prestige program interested in pushing television’s formal boundaries beyond that of a narrative delivery device, using picture and sound in thrillingly experimental ways, often at cross-purposes with the story.
A fine actress in her own right, Seimetz used her paycheck from starring in last year’s lousy “Pet Sematary” remake to self-finance “She Dies Tomorrow,” shooting a lot of the movie in her home with a cast and crew of regular collaborators and friends, giving the film an intensely personal, almost handmade quality. (It’s no accident that the protagonist is named Amy.) Scene transitions drift into mini-reveries of abstract color and light, with the performers sometimes staring into strobes and cycling through a stunning array of emotions, from anger and sadness to eventual acceptance.
This is heavy-duty stuff, but with a sicko strain of gallows humor running throughout. One of the funniest sequences I’ve seen all year involves the frenzied, pajama-clad Jane showing up late for her sister-in-law’s birthday party and hijacking the conversation with highfalutin’ meditations on her impending doom (“Albert Camus said that — I know, I Googled it”) while the rest of the guests struggle to make small talk over cake. The best reactions come from a troubled partygoer played by TV On The Radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe, the rock star honing a sad-sack deadpan reminiscent of Buster Keaton, eventually acknowledging in the face of death that he and his girlfriend probably weren’t going to stay together for very much longer anyway.
Springsteen once sang that “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.” But it’s a fact that we try to forget about and get on with our lives. For most of us it’s been harder to do that during these past few months, isolated from one another and desperate for distractions. “She Dies Tomorrow” is a movie for our peculiar, frightening moment because it’s about how quickly our concept of normalcy can be ripped away, and what happens when the thoughts that usually only come out late at night start taking over during the day. Yet there’s also warmth to the movie that comes from sharing — and even laughing at — all these things that scare us. It left me feeling less alone than I’ve felt in weeks. This strange film is strangely comforting.
"She Dies Tomorrow" is available Friday, Aug. 7, via video on demand.
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