Thursday, August 6, 2020

In She Dies Tomorrow, It's All in Your Head Until It's in Everybody Else's Head, Too

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SHE DIES TOMORROW 
(Amy Seimetz, 2020, rated R, USA, 85 minutes)

Writer-director Amy Seimetz's first feature in eight years has been described as a horror film, and although it looks and sounds like one, it plays like something else--an existential thriller or an experimental comedy, perhaps--but I'm not sure that it really matters. Once a film makes its way into the world, it's up to viewers to interpret it as they will, but I can see why the marketing suggests horror: horror sells. And if that encourages people to take a chance on this un-categorizable film, more's the better (some of them will surely be disappointed, but that's the risk filmmakers take when they color outside the lines).

It begins with a disorienting closeup of an anxious eye before Seimetz introduces cinematic doppelg√§nger Amy (Kate Lynn Sheil from her debut, Sun Don’t Shine). She's just bought a house somewhere in Southern California, and she should be happy, except something isn't quite right. That something is her premonition that she will die tomorrow. It isn't inconceivable. Any of us could. More so when a pandemic has the entire fucking globe in its grip. Back when she was shooting this self-financed feature, Seimetz couldn't have seen that coming, and yet the film reflects the very real fears with which millions of us have been grappling.  

So Amy walks around in a fugue state, playing Mozart's "Lacrimosa" over and over again, and having half-formed phone conversations. Her friend, Jane (the invaluable Jane Adams), arrives for a visit and finds Amy wearing a sequin-covered dress while trimming the hedges in her hilly backyard. It's pitch dark, so she can't possibly see what she's doing. Jane talks her down, but she can't understand what's going on with her friend, and she doesn't have much patience for the moping, the drinking (Amy is a recovering alcoholic), and the gibberish about leather jackets and death.

Patient Jane Adams infects doctor Josh Lucas
Seimetz's elliptical style, which includes intentionally abrupt transitions, ensures that none of this unfolds in a straightforward manner. That was also true of the clammy, noirish Sun Don’t Shine. There are cutaways to bright, pulsating lights and unidentifiable liquids under a microscope. Some of these things are explained, some are not. Either we're seeing things as Amy and Jane do, or the imagery represents the way they feel--or some combination of the two.

After Jane returns home, she becomes convinced that she will die tomorrow, a sign that this thing, this way of thinking, is a virus. By spending time with Amy, even while rejecting her ramblings, Jane has become infected, too.

She deals with it by deciding to attend the birthday party she had been thinking of skipping. She hops in her car, still clad in her pajamas, and heads over. She brings her death-talk to the party, which includes couple Tilly and Brian (Jennifer Kim and TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe) and her brother, Jason (Chris Messina), and his wife, birthday girl Susan (Katie Aselton, having a ball). Susan is convinced that Jane is the most self-centered person she has ever met, but her complete lack of compassion for an obviously troubled individual indicates that she may not have met many people.

Tunde Adebimpe as seen by DP Jay Keitel
At first the couples think Jane is trying to be funny, but then they don't know what to think. She explains that she doesn't want to be alone if she's going to die tomorrow. After the party, the participants all come to the same exact realization: they're going to die tomorrow. Each one will proceed to deal with it in a different way. And this is the point at which the horror premise, which was already spiked with comedy, shifts into a different, more enigmatic mode.

All the while, Seimetz flashes back to events from Amy's past with Craig (Kentucker Audley) that help to explain how she became the carrier of this thing with which she has infected everyone else. As the night continues, other characters (played by Adam Wingard, Michelle Rodriguez, Olivia Taylor Dudley, and James Benning) become ensnared in one way or another.  

If I didn't find She Dies Tomorrow frightening, that doesn't mean I don't think the film works--or that I don't like double negatives too much for my own good. Nor do I think it's wrong to classify it as horror. It may not have played that way for me, but it has for others, like Vulture's Bilge Ebiri, who has described it as "terrifying." Once I got over my surprise, I was able to more fully appreciate what Seimetz was trying to do. (For what it's worth, I also watched Natalie Erika James's Relic this week; for a more viscerally chilling experience, look no further). In the press notes, she explains that she was inspired by the way when you're feeling anxious, and you tell another person about it, you run the risk of making them anxious, too.

And that's what's stuck with me. Seimetz isn't exploring a virus that spreads through physical contact, as in David Robert Mitchell's It Follows, but through psychic contact. It's possible that Amy can see the future and that she's correctly predicted her imminent demise, but it's also possible that she's just paranoid. The open-ended ending suggests that the second option is just as bad--or just as fatal, at any rate--because you might be more likely to put yourself in harm's way if you're convinced you're going to die. Conversely, it suggests that there could be something calming in knowing when you're going to die instead of having death arrive when you least expect it. Having 24 hours or so to prepare for death may not sound like much of a deal, but compared to, say, 24 seconds, it's a pretty good one.



She Dies Tomorrow is currently playing at drive-in theaters. It opens on streaming platforms, including  iTunes and Google Play, on Fri, Aug 7. 

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