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‘She Dies Tomorrow’ Review: An unnerving study of primal reckoning

There's no serial killers, grotesque monsters or traditional jump-scares here; the fears are more foundational.
Credit: Neon

An unnerving film with a small cast unfolding in an even smaller number of close-quartered locations, there will be some who watch “She Dies Tomorrow” and think it to be a small movie. It may even be true. What isn’t true is that “She Dies Tomorrow” is a small movie about small things—in reality, it’s about very big things. The most consequential of things: The ends of things.

That’s an important distinction to make right off the bat—the plurality of “ends.” While parallels can be drawn between writer-director Amy Seimetz’s second feature and Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” – both psychological studies set against the backdrop of suggested looming cataclysm – “She Dies Tomorrow” is tuned to an even more intimate key, locking its precisely imprecise gaze not on planet-sized apocalypse but on self-confrontation of the most ancient kind.

Seimetz’s movie understands that in a society growing more polarized with every headline, the notion that everyone will someday breathe their last breath is ubiquitous. It’s not a topic for conversation over brunch, so the director is breaking the ice for us. She’s clearly enamored with the idea of an expiration date being humanity’s lowest common denominator, and in watching her new movie – which makes no assumptions and is as restrained as it is forthcoming – we become enamored as well. When the thought of our last hours, minutes, seconds is considered not as notion but what it actually is – inevitability – it’s impossible to think of very much else. “She Dies Tomorrow” explores that narrow canyon between fixation and compulsion with dread curiosity. It’s casual, but deeply serious; abstract, but strangely legible.

Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil, displaying sheer magnetism) doesn’t seem to be doing too well. She’s trying to keep herself busy from thinking about or doing…something. The early scenes find her hesitantly walking through her home (we assume it’s her home, at least) as she plays Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” on loop and puts her ear to the wall—not because she heard something lurking from within, but because she seemingly hopes to. Later, she’ll go outside with a leaf blower in one hand, a glass of wine in the other, and she’ll wonder what it would take to be made into a leather jacket.

The spontaneity is Lanthimosian in its uncontextualized absurdity. We’re not sure what’s wrong with Amy—we’re not sure if she knows what’s wrong. The confusion begins to clear up, incrementally, as she considers various options of urns on her laptop and a friend arrives out of concern that she’ll relapse. If she hasn’t already.

But that’s not what’s on Amy’s mind. “I’m going to die tomorrow—I know it,” she tells Jane (played by Jane Adams, excellent in a role that is many things at once), with less urgency than if declaring she was out of flour just before baking cookies. Jane responds with a dismissive wave of the hand: “No, you’re not.” The audience, naturally, responds the same way. What a ludicrous statement, we think.

Which is exactly what Seimetz is expecting, before making us grapple with why we react how we do. What makes “She Dies Tomorrow” effective is its deceptively acute perception of personal anxieties embedded so deeply within us that when they awaken – as it does within Amy, soon Jane and later a few others – Amy has gone from being a person in need of guidance to someone who might just be the guide.   

Over 90 minutes or so, we’ll watch as the consideration of death – namely, that it will happen eventually, so why not the very next day? – hops from person to person (not totally unlike the ghoulish hot-potato concept at the center of “It Follows”) as “She Dies Tomorrow” keeps a tight focus on the slow-creep of claustrophobic reckoning. But I’m hesitant to compare the contagious obsession to, well, a contagion—putting such a clinical label on Seimetz’s premise is, I think, reductive to her terrifying intentions. And when the movie’s various characters – we’ll meet about a half dozen, with Amy the returning centerpiece – fix their gaze directly on us as neon lights from undetermined sources flash and fly across their eyes, the pull becomes more of a siren song.

Credit: Neon

“She Dies Tomorrow” fully embraces its strangeness, and it’s especially graceful in the controlled chaos of Kate Brokaw’s editing work. The movie’s construction is bizarre, a being of its own impulses. Narratively, aesthetically and in dialogue, Seimetz and Brokaw manage to create the illusion that the film is building on itself in real-time—as if finding new implications to consider at the same speed as our characters are. The technique is a daring gamble on Seimetz’s part; it pays off thrillingly, ensnaring us in the spiral. 

In the film’s most effective moments, “She Dies Tomorrow” coats itself in an ambiguity so alluring and so mysterious that we come to empathize when Amy, Jane and eventually others in their close circle can do nothing but sit and consider like they just took 50 doses of the world’s most potent relaxant. It’s an ambiguity that Seimetz proves has been felt by everyone, is felt by everyone. Adding to how unsettling it all plays out is a dash of perverse humor that naturally arises as characters get frank with their romantic partners  (“We should’ve broken up six months ago”) and themselves. I also found myself reading “She Dies Tomorrow” as an examination of relationships—how we’re often late to arrive at epiphanies of priority, and how that arrival can feel both like taking flight and plunging into hellish emotional depths.

The movie waxes and wanes in regards to its core sublimity, but “She Dies Tomorrow” makes enough of it work to stand out as a subversion of convention; Seimetz turns the one-day-at-a-time trope of the movies and, indeed, our own lives on its bashfully accepted head. It would be just as effective in the pre-COVID era as it is now, the rare movie that delves an extra layer into human nature as it disentangles primal considerations that are at once universal and inexplicable. That makes it a thematical counterweight – and perhaps a necessary one – to the comforting cynicism of “Palm Springs” released earlier this month.

Some who watch the movie, I anticipate, will question whether it’s more cosmic comedy than horror. Others who are more unsettled by what Seimetz suggests won’t find there’s a debate to be had that the scales tip toward the latter. The great thing is that “She Dies Tomorrow” works either way.

"She Dies Tomorrow" is rated R for language, some sexual references, drug use and bloody images. It's screening at some drive-in theaters Friday, and will be available for rent digital beginning August 7. 

Starring: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Kentucker Audley, Katie Aselton

Directed by Amy Seimetz

2020

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