Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) awakes with a start. She walks through her new house, filled with unpacked boxes and half-wallpapered walls. She puts on classical music, shops online for cremation urns and crawls across her living room floor. Something is clearly not right. When her friend Jane (Jane Adams), a photographer, stops by late in the evening to check on her, she finds Amy in a sparkly evening gown, blowing leaves on a precarious perch in her backyard. The glass of wine in her hand suggests she’s been drinking — she isn’t supposed to be — so Jane chalks it up to a relapse. But the reason Amy is profoundly disturbed is that, according to her: “I am going to die tomorrow.” Her friend thinks she’s being paranoid. When Jane arrives back at her house, however, and is settling in for an evening of work, she too suddenly has the sensation that her days are single-digit numbered….
“What is the most resilient parasite?” a wise man once asked. “An idea.” She Dies Tomorrow, Amy Seimetz’s unnerving existential horror movie, takes this concept one baby step further: What if the thought that you were going to shuffle off this mortal coil very, very soon was not just a parasite but a contagion? Once Jane is gripped with the sense that time is somehow running out, she rushes off to her sister-in-law’s birthday party, still in her pajamas; soon, everyone at this tiny soirée also believe that the end is near and they will face the final curtain. Despair spreads regardless of social distancing.
Meanwhile, Amy is chugging bottles of chablis as she drives to the original scene of the crime, a desert vacation house where her new boyfriend (Kentucker Audley) once answered the door for a pizza delivery and returned a little…different. Flashbacks fill in the narrative gaps, yet there is no revelation, rhyme or reason as to why this paranoia pandemic is happening, no easily located cause. The glowing, pulsing red and blue lights, the dissociative states and dissonant sounds of staticky, far-off voices that accompany the depressive plunges may be real or simply figments of tainted imaginations. It ultimately doesn’t matter. The longer you watch these folks succumb to communal self-destruction, the more you recognize their collective madness.
Because in 2020, this is no such thing as “inexplicable” dread — there’s just the dozen or so things constantly vying for prime hand-wringing real estate that occupies you the most at any given moment. Seimetz gets this. So does anyone who’s spent more than 30 seconds on Twitter. It’s the way she manages to tap into that free-floating sense of fatalism and make it feel both abstract and achingly personal, however, that feels so unsettling. A graduate of the DIY microindie school of filmmaking, this prolific Florida native has a long and impressive resumé: a handful of shorts, an associate producer credit on Barry Jenkins’ first movie Medicine for Melancholy, below-the-line work for many of her mumble-peers, co-showrunning duties on TV’s The Girlfriend Experience, lots of acting roles and recurring parts in shows like The Killing and Stranger Things. Her debut as a writer-director, Sun Don’t Shine (2012), turned a road-trip film into a dreamlike tour Sunshine State regionalism. Here, she crafts a nightmare scenario one step removed from our daily life right now. This was supposed to premiere at SXSW back in March, before the festival canceled this year’s edition. It just happens to slink into drive-ins this weekend — and on VOD starting August 7th — at a moment that seems eerily in sync with the country’s other-people-equals-death mindset.
Yet you never sense that Seimetz is trying to be topical about anything or issue some pre-COVID state of the nation. She Dies Tomorrow is undeniably a horror movie, complete with intense music cues and glimpses of blood-smeared walls, but it’s an intimate one. It’s probably not a coincidence that the lead character is named after her creator, or that the film’s early scenes of Sheil wandering around her house, isolated and on edge, feel so uncomfortably, emotionally naked. (It’s also tough to watch the movie’s opening vignette of Audley, raging and violently trashing a living room, without thinking of this recent news story.) Seimetz has stocked her cast with longtime collaborators, scenesters and 21st century indie-film stalwarts, ranging from Chris Messina, Josh Lucas and Gina Rodriguez to experimental filmmaker James Benning, TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe and Katie Aselton; it’s worth noting that the latter is married to Mark Duplass, thus fulfilling the mandate that all microindies must include at least one Duplass family member. Sheil, however, is the sun around which all of this anxiety revolves, and the key to what makes the film feel as if the center can’t hold. Her stock in trade is usually a sort of low-key blank affect — few actors have done more with near-expressionless performances (see Kate Plays Christine) — and to see that gift utilized here, broken up with the occasional breakdown, furthers the feeling that everything is numbingly coming unmoored. Her calmness and resignation is eerie.
Then again, so is the film’s entire portrait of a society that feels overcome by a viral sense of gloom, doom and panic-stricken pessimism writ large. Because they would not stop for death, it kindly stopped for them, and it’s sent a meeting invite to the Outlook calendar in your skull for tomorrow. The apocalypse, however, is now. Seimetz, Sheil and their cohorts have delivered a contagion movie set to stun rather than kill, which somehow makes all of it feel that much more close to home. And for a film so attuned to the rhythms of loneliness, She Dies Tomorrow manages to mine the uncertainty and dread everybody feels right now — which oddly makes you feel like you aren’t alone at all. It feels both timeless in its ability to channel a universal fear of mortality and if it has arrived, regrettably, right on time.