You could be forgiven for wondering, during the first 20 or so minutes of Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow, just what exactly the hell is happening. Seimetz likes not just her frames oblique, but also her characters and stories — at least at first. Her film opens with a combination of arresting extreme close-ups and mysterious figures barely glimpsed, almost as if the camera were trying to find the ideal distance with which to frame the narrative. Most of the early scenes focus on a clearly troubled young woman named Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) wandering alone in and around her home, guzzling wine, muttering to herself. Elsewhere, a man seems to lament a broken relationship. Are they connected? Could Amy’s spiraling condition be prompted by the relationship and its end?
But it’s another end Amy apparently has in mind, and when the story finally clicks into place, don’t be surprised if a cold chill suddenly goes up your already-tense spine. Amy has become convinced she is going to die tomorrow — literally. Her friend Jane (Jane Adams), a scientist, checks in on her, and tries to reason with her. (“I’m going to die tomorrow.” “No, you’re not.” “Yes, I am.” “No, you’re not.”) But after the visit, Jane becomes convinced she, too, will die tomorrow; she shows up at her sister-in-law Susan’s (Katie Aselton) birthday party in her pajamas, rambles incoherently about her own impending demise, and soon enough, Susan, Jane’s brother Jason (Chris Messina), and their two party guests (Tunde Adebimpe and Jennifer Kim) are all ominously staring into space, convinced that they are also not long for this world. It’s intensely disturbing and hilarious in equal measure, as if somebody decided to let David Lynch remake Contagion.
There is, of course, an eerie prescience to Seimetz’s film, not just in its depiction of a pandemic (however absurd this particular one may be) but also in its bleak, spellbinding solitude; an existential plague, it turns out, is almost as effective as our current, real-life one in alienating us from each other. When Jason and Susan are hit with the virus (can we call it a virus?), they stand in their kitchen, facing away from each other, agonizingly alone in their sudden mortality. Later, after they tell their teenage daughter about … well, you know, we hear the girl’s anguished shrieks emanating from her room. Each person in the film faces death in his or her own way: One goes to an emergency room; one breaks up with her boyfriend; another disconnects his hospitalized father from life support; yet another goes home to be with his wife. Amy (remember Amy?) goes on a late-night dune-buggy ride. Some smile at the thought of death. Some cry. Some are paralyzed. But everybody also becomes brutally honest with one another. Mortality, it seems, crystalizes the real.
As a filmmaker, Seimetz started off in the experimental world, and her willingness to let her narrative occasionally slip into abstraction serves her well, suggesting broader, more cosmic meanings. Her images blur, her frames pulse and shiver, bubbling microscopic phenomena wash over the screen, and fields of unreal color overwhelm the characters. The soundtrack assaults us with ominous thrums, blasts of classical music, whispers, and distant screams. The film is short and sparsely populated, but it can’t be called minimalist — it’s more of a clipped maximalism, bursting with expressive power before quickly pulling back, like a tale told by someone both eager and afraid to let you in on their darkest secrets.
I keep coming back to those early scenes, however, and to the more mundane circumstance they suggest: the end of a relationship. Over the course of She Dies Tomorrow, we see flashes to this affair, to how it developed and, eventually, how it unraveled. In that sense, the film’s prescience feels both highly specific and expansive. Yes, it is remarkable that Amy Seimetz somehow managed to make something that accurately captures the feeling of life right now, given that she had no idea of the environment into which her film would be released. But what makes her picture so unnerving, so uncanny, so unforgettable isn’t its depiction of a viral phenomenon, which is momentary, but rather its all-encompassing, debilitating sense of finality, which is eternal. Things end — that’s what they do, the film suggests. The realization that they must is a truth that can itself destroy entire worlds and create terrifying new ones. She Dies Tomorrow is one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in a long time.
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