Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), for inexplicable reasons, is infernally convinced that tomorrow’s the day she’s going to meet her maker. Making a bad situation worse, her confidence is catching: Through an eerie, fatalist game of telephone, her friends and family, and even total strangers with whom they interact, come to believe they’re going to die tomorrow, too. It’s almost like they’ve been gaslit, except they’re the ones soaking themselves with lighter fluid, sparking off a chain reaction of macabre determinism in which each person afflicted by the curse of languages sees the end coming for them in 24 hours or less.
She Dies Tomorrow is both the perfect film for this moment and also the worst viewing choice possible considering the circumstances: Everyone’s at home, contending with varied combinations of dread, grief, rage of either the defiant or impotent persuasion, boredom and, in the absolute best case scenario, a numbing calm. Amy Seimetz, writing and directing her sophomore follow-up to her superb 2012 feature debut Sun Don’t Shine, captures the same pandemic fears as movies like Sea Fever and The Beach House, but enhances them with existential currents. Seimetz straddles the line dividing terror from malaise delicately, her balancing act being She Dies Tomorrow’s greatest strength. Instead of shoehorning all of her ideas and textures into one genre, she keeps the film fluid.
Whatever force has Amy so assured of her impending doom, whatever entity has lodged in her mind pictures of her passing, Seimetz keeps its presence minimal. She’s focused on outcomes and not on confrontations. There’s no resisting death, after all. Everybody has to go sometime. Jason (Chris Messina), brother to Jane (Jane Adams), Amy’s bestie, even says as much while washing the dishes with his wife, Susan (Katie Aselton), both of them having caught Amy’s bummer pathogens from Jane when she crashes her sister-in-law’s birthday dinner party. He glances at the window over the kitchen sink and sees the same sight as Amy just 20 minutes prior: vivid flashing lights, red and blue at first, then yellow, green, violet, each color interspersed with split second jolts of images that to the naked eye are best described as “uterine.” Jason’s going to die tomorrow. Susan’s going to die tomorrow. Seimetz and editor Kate Brokaw cut to Tilly (Jennifer Kim) and Brian (Tunde Adebimpe), Jason and Susan’s dinner guests, smiling and crying as they, too, see the lights.
The sequence is built on unimpeachable celestial horror, vivid in its chosen color palette and deafening in its implications. What would any of us do if we were burdened without asking by foreknowledge of our imminent expiration? Weep? Cackle? Go to the desert in the pitch black of past midnight and carome around in a dune buggy, starved for a cheap thrill? After playing the Lacrymosa movement of Mozart’s Requiem on repeat more times than is strictly healthy, Amy, patient zero, heads to her backyard and tends her garden by blasting an agave plant with a leaf blower. (White wine is also involved in her process.) She looks like she’s lost all of her marbles, yet she’s the most at ease person in She Dies Tomorrow. This is easily the best instrument for measuring just how thoroughly Seimetz breaks the world by forcing her characters to stare death in the face. All it takes is five words for Amy’s friends and her friends’ friends to have breakdowns.
Grant that Amy’s final request as a woman waiting at the Grim Reaper’s driveway is to be made into a leather jacket. “I want to be useful in death,” she tells Jane, noting that the floor of her house used to be a tree, and that just like the tree, she wants her demise to serve a purpose. But outlandish as her wish may be, it makes sense. Amy has had the time to mull over what’s coming for her and come to terms with it, more time at least than Jane, Tilly, Brian, or Jason and Susan, who snuggle up next to their sleeping teenage daughter to let her know what to expect from tomorrow. (Listening to her wail and scream over the realization of her own encroaching death is shattering.) Time gives Amy the presence of mind to find peace, demonstrated through Sheil’s work as a version of performance art: Amy caresses the floorboards with her fingers, gently runs her cheek across its grain, familiarizing herself with its texture as she comes to her final conclusions about what her death means to her.
It’s a surprisingly relaxing moment leading into cacophonies to be as the rest of She Dies Tomorrow’s characters have death presented to them as not an option but a certainty. Sheil plays the scene with the dazed resignation of a woman who has accepted her mortality under supernatural influence, but Amy’s just one blip on the spectrum of reactions Seimetz establishes throughout the picture. Viewers will gravitate toward their own characters with whom they can identify, whether they’re pissed or petrified. Mercifully, She Dies Tomorrow’s exploration of inevitable human fate expresses more about death than angst and ennui. We’re inclined to put off tomorrow because tomorrow guarantees a new round of soul-crushing devastation. Thinking about tomorrow, however, prepares us to resist the crush. Counting days inflicts only as much anguish as we allow. Maybe we’ll die tomorrow. What Seimetz proposes, by making an effective marriage of movies like Pontypool and It Follows, is that we might as well reflect on it first.
Director: Amy Seimetz
Writer: Amy Seimetz
Starring: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Kentucker Audley, Chris Messina, Katie Aselton, Tunde Adebimpe, Jennifer Kim, Josh Lucas, Michelle Rodriguez, Adam Wingard, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Madison Calderon
Release Date: August 7, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.