by Andrew Wyatt on Aug 6, 2020

She Dies Tomorrow begins with a woman alone in a house. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) isn’t so much crawling the walls of her newly purchased suburban home as she is lolling around its still under-furnished spaces, as though trapped in purgatory but not especially distressed about that fact. She drinks wine – maybe too much wine. She stares blankly at a half-wallpapered room. She tries on sequined dresses better suited to a night on the town than leftover pizza on the couch. She shops online for clothes and (ominously) funerary urns. She listens to the “Lacrimosa” movement from Mozart’s Requiem on a loop. Amy has no visitors, no routine, and no apparent obligations. Time seems to flatten, day bleeding into night and then back into day. One recalls Grace Zabriskie’s batty neighbor in Inland Empire, observing with a titter, “Me, I can't seem to remember if it's today, two days from now, or yesterday.” (Not the first time David Lynch’s 2006 avant-garde masterpiece will come to mind during this film.) At one point, Amy notices pulses of candy-colored light emanating from down the hall, as though a pop-up nightclub had suddenly appeared in her guest bedroom. This glow transfixes her, her face registering a gestalt of fascination, exhilaration, and raw terror.

The sophomore feature from writer-director (and SLIFF alum) Amy Seimetz announces its art-film ambitions in these opening scenes. She and Sheil – one of the most esteemed actors currently working in American indie cinema – conjure a potent, swelling sense of unease, and all from the leanest raw materials. There is minimal dialogue, and what the viewer learns of Amy’s personality and backstory is mostly puzzled out from stray details. It requires a certain creative fearlessness to begin a film in such a manner, trusting that the feature’s heady, mysterious atmosphere will trump its narrative listlessness. Fortunately, Seimetz and Sheil have the skill and collaborative rapport to pull it off: The latter previously worked with the filmmaker in her scuzzy, swampy noir Sun Don’t Shine (2012) and on the first season of Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan’s The Girlfriend Experience series (2016-).

However, She Dies Tomorrow is not, despite initial appearances, a one-woman show. The masterstroke of Seimetz’s film – the secret ingredient that turns its languid, auteurist minimalism into the stuff of psychotronic horror and Mojave-dry absurdist comedy – is deceptively simple. She adds an interloper: After Amy places a confused, distressing call to her scientist friend, Jane (Jane Adams), the latter woman arrives to check up on her. Jane finds Amy standing motionless in her backyard, holding a roaring leaf blower for no apparent reason. Although it’s obvious from the empty wine bottles that the alcoholic Amy has relapsed, she isn't really despondent. She's lost in a fog of matter-of-fact fatalism. “I’m going to die tomorrow,” she observes in a tone one would use for announcing a boring work trip to Cincinnati. The concerned but exasperated Jane dismisses this prophecy as an attention-seeking delusion: “How do you know that?” “I just know,” is the reply.

Jane later returns home, ditching a party invitation from her brother to spend the night working in her basement microbiology laboratory. However, she can’t shake Amy’s macabre declaration, which lodges itself in Jane’s brain like an insidious, devouring parasite. Eventually, she too is seeing mysterious rainbow-hued lights, which compel her to walk out her front door (still dressed in her pajamas) and show up at the small birthday party her brother, Jason (Chris Messina), is throwing for his wife, Susan (Katie Aselton). Though Jane seems to have always been a bit of an odd duck – as the scornful, self-absorbed Susan reminds everyone, repeatedly – Jason is worried that his sibling had suffered some sort of nervous breakdown. “I’m going to die tomorrow,” Jane informs the guests solemnly, who variously regard her with unease, disdain, and puzzlement. However, this proclamation infects everyone who hears it like a psychic virus, and soon enough Jason, Amy, and their friends Brian (Tunde Adebimpe) and Tilly (Jannifer Kim) feel the same creeping dread, see the same colored lights, and are overwhelmed by the same unassailable truth: I’m going to die tomorrow.

It would practically be critical malpractice to disregard the obvious resonance of Seimetz’s film in the context of the (still) ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, a global catastrophe that has isolated millions of people in their homes with their most morbid anxieties. Nonetheless, while She Dies Tomorrow might feel like a Film for This Moment, however unintentionally, it’s also a work whose thematic reach stretches back to our species’ earliest primeval awareness of our own mortality. The looming shadow of the Grim Reaper isn’t something most people like to acknowledge, but once noticed, his presence can easily elicit an all-consuming obsession, if only briefly. (It’s literally the final form of the White Bear Problem pithily described by Dostoevsky.) Though existential panic is nothing new in the human experience, it’s rarely been as evocatively portrayed as in Seimetz’s film, which imagines it as a kind of contagion, spreading from person to person with frightening speed. It’s certainly the most novel apocalyptic vision since Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool (2008), a memetic epidemic whose symptoms echo those of many real-world mental disorders.

This points to another, perhaps more pointed metaphor nestled inside Seimetz’s peculiar feature: The way that mental illness isolates and others the individual, despite the fact that such disorders are commonplace. (It’s not incidental that those malevolent colored lights tend to hit the characters when they are left alone with their thoughts.) Mood and anxiety disorders are inherently disruptive phenomena, and She Dies Tomorrow highlights the antipathy such afflictions can elicit when they reverberate beyond a person’s private hell. With her pink pajamas, disheveled hair, and intense stare, Jane looks uncannily like an escapee from a psychiatric hospital, but the film is more interested in how people react to infected individuals than in clucking sorrowfully over the victims’ abrupt descent into morbid monomania. Seimetz cunningly illustrates how aberrant behavior is more conditional than categorical: The abnormal is defined as much by the where and when as by the what. (Talking about one's looming death at a party, for example, is frowned upon.) When a person acts oddly, strangers chuckle awkwardly, change the subject, and look away in embarrassment. Loved ones dismiss, minimize, and chastise. It’s not the victims’ certainty about their imminent demise that truly upsets others, but the unwelcome reminder that everyone is going to die someday – maybe not tomorrow, but someday.

The film’s chronology is somewhat scrambled and ambiguous – flashbacks appear to reveal how Amy was first infected by a boyfriend, Craig (Kentucker Audley) – and it's unclear how much time passes for each infected individual. At least one afflicted character seems to turn up alive and well the day after tomorrow. No matter. Like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), She Dies Tomorrow is less about the doom itself than the myriad responses that people exhibit when faced with that doom. Amy loosely retraces her steps from a fateful weekend getaway with Craig, as though searching for answers. (Stopping along the way to inquire with a leatherworker about harvesting her skin posthumously to fashion a jacket.) Jane visits a doctor to report her upcoming death and then later commits a grisly act of self-harm. Jason and Susan curl up with their young daughter, suffocating her with their desperate sorrow. Brian takes Tilly to the hospital where his comatose father is slowly dying and then proceeds to methodically disconnect the machines keeping him alive. The diversity in the characters’ reactions underlines the film's broader point: When the end is near, who’s to say what constitutes “normal” behavior?

Throughout She Dies Tomorrow, Seimetz exhibits little interest in clarifying the film’s ambiguities, preferring to nurture a rich atmosphere of abstract, oozing dread. The unnerving score by the Mondo Boys – the professional moniker of film composers Mike Griffin and Mike Schanzlin – goes a long way to establishing this mood, as do the Suspiria-like blooms of vivid color that herald (or perhaps trigger) the characters’ existential crises. The film’s sound design betrays some low-budget seams, but there are also flashes of sublime inspiration. (One brilliantly cheeky moment: When the lights suddenly go out at the party, Jane’s gasp of terror melds perfectly with Jason’s opening warble of “Happy birthday to you ...”) Style is consistently privileged over narrative clarity, while nuts-and-bolts questions related to plot are left entirely unresolved, often insolently so. Do the infected individuals die or do they just think they’re going to die? It’s moot, insofar as the film is completely uninterested in telling a story where that distinction matters.

Seimetz keeps things slippery, eschewing a conclusive assertion of genre for a borderline avant-garde approach that’s more eccentric, pensive, and uncompromised than in contemporary indie features that are more forthright about their sci-fi or horror elements. Despite this artistic verve, the film still makes space here and there for touches of absurd humor and quirky human warmth. (There’s that echo of David Lynch again.) It’s a curious feature to be sure, at once alluring and alienating, and the filmmaker’s determination to tell a Twilight Zone tale in her own elliptical, unhurried style might repel viewers with little patience for art-film vagueness. Nonetheless, Seimetz’s thematic preoccupations are unquestionably well expressed by the poetic, audacious stripe of indie cinema that She Dies Tomorrow epitomizes.

Rating: B

She Dies Tomorrow is now available to rent from major online platforms.