In the first few minutes of She Dies Tomorrow, we are shown a glimpse through a doorway of a man with his back to us, peering in on him as he spirals out of control. “Oh my God, it’s over,” he mutters to himself. “It’s fucking over.” As he paces, he becomes more and more agitated; objects begin to fly around the room, visible for an instant through the doorway until they smash against the far wall. “It’s over! It’s over!” he chants, almost an incantation, the staccato sounds of splintering furniture and shattering glass serving as percussion. “You don’t get it; you don’t understand,” he moans. Is there someone else in the room with him? Or is he talking to us? It’s impossible to tell. “I’m not crazy… I’m not crazy! Please understand I’m not crazy. I had time…I had time, but it’s over now. There’s no tomorrow.” Then, just as we perceive that he’s looking over his shoulder at us through the doorway, his face obscured by the doorframe: “I’m not fucking crazy.”
And then Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) wakes with a body-shuddering gasp, which she will do several more times throughout the film. Was that a memory? A nightmare? A portentous vision of things to come? Again, it’s impossible to tell.
The opening act of She Dies Tomorrow operates on a kind of nightmarish dream logic; it’s made up of vignettes and glimpses of Amy drifting around a house that’s not fully unpacked yet, drowning herself in wine, her face lit by absolutely stunning shades of blue and red. It’s borderline experimental, definitely surrealist, all about establishing tone and building dread…for what, we don’t quite know. But it feels like a familiar sort of dread, and it’s visceral. She Googles cremation urns, and then leather jackets. One long take shows her fuzzy and out of focus, slowly approaching the camera as the lights in the room flash vibrant colors, the image slowly becoming sharper until she’s right in front of us, her face contorted in an expression that sits somewhere between abject horror and something like religious ecstasy.
It’s not until about the 17 minute mark that we get a full “scene,” as we usually think of it, made up of two characters interacting. When the film settles into something more narrative, we learn the reason for the dreamlike atmosphere and general sense of foreboding. Amy has somehow become convinced — irrevocably, unshakably convinced — that she will die tomorrow. By the time her friend Jane (Jane Addams) comes over to check on her, Amy’s mood seems to have transformed into something like resignation; she’s not necessarily afraid or upset anymore. This is just something she knows: she will die tomorrow.
“It’s okay,” she tells Jane. “I mean, it’s not okay. It just is.”
Before long, having fled Amy’s house in frustration, Jane too is visited by flashing green, red, blue, and purple lights. She calls Amy, who doesn’t answer, and says, “I feel like you put this idea of dying in my head.”
Existential terror in She Dies Tomorrow, you see, is contagious. Spend any time around someone who’s caught the bug, and soon you, too, will know: you die tomorrow. To describe the film any further would give away some of its pleasures, which come from seeing how each successive person reacts to this sudden revelation of their impending mortality. Amy spirals down a night of self-destruction. Jane turns to family. And on it goes, spreading outward, until it feels positively apocalyptic.
This is the obligatory part of the review where I say that the film resonates especially strongly ~in these uncertain times.~ The concept of the film certainly feels incredibly, uncomfortably relevant given the fact that society is facing mass death on a global scale. After all, we’re all walling ourselves off from each other, out of fear of catching something that could mean we die tomorrow.
But I think it’s more complicated, more impressive than that. Writer/director Amy Seimetz’s film isn’t (just) about coronavirus — after all, it was written and shot before the pandemic broke out. Instead, it seems to me that She Dies Tomorrow captures the feeling of this entire cursed era of modern life, one where even before the virus we dreaded what the news would bring every single day. We approach modern life now with a particularly potent mixture of existential horror and resigned exhaustion. The film is also, occasionally, startlingly funny, reflecting the way that sometimes, all you can do when faced with the end of everything you know and love is just to laugh. For proof, see the way twitter reacts to each new turn that this infernal year has taken… Murder hornets? Earthquakes? Federal police snatching protesters off the street and throwing them into unmarked cars? Aliens, maybe? Yep, seems about right, we say. It just is.
“I will never find the way to say how much I love American close-ups,” wrote critic Jean Epstein in 1921, in one of the first essays that attempted to theorize film by exploring what Epstein called photogénie — a peculiar, hard-to-define quality of moving photographic images that inspires excitement in the viewer. “Point blank: a head suddenly appears on screen and drama, now face to face, seems to address me personally and swells with extraordinary intensity. I am hypnotized. The close-up, the keystone of the cinema, is the maximum expression of this photogénie of movement.”
One of the biggest strengths of She Dies Tomorrow is its uniformly excellent supporting cast, and the close-ups in the film are exquisite. We are given numerous chances to sit and simply contemplate the faces of movie stars like Chris Messina and Michelle Rodriguez, watching the way light plays across their features as they experience something transformative and unnameable. It is, as Epstein wrote, hypnotic.
This is the kind of film that will inspire essays picking apart its symbolism — for example, the way Amy’s half-unpacked house could represent her half-lived life, or the long shot of Jane walking across broken glass and then across bubble wrap, which seems to exist just for the pleasures of the sound design but could also be a way of showing her inner journey from fear and danger to self-preservation.
All of that is somewhat outside the scope of this review, though, which I will end by putting it bluntly. See. This. Movie. This odd, blockbuster-free summer in film means that smaller movies are getting a bigger chance to shine, and out of everything buzzy that’s been released so far, this is the one to make sure you don’t miss.
By Eric Langberg
She Dies Tomorrow opens in drive-in theaters this Friday July 31st, followed by a VOD release on August 7th.