- Spoiler alert: this review reveals a plot twist
Amy has a death fixation – not just the character Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), who has suddenly been filled with the absolute, unwavering certainty that she is going to meet her end the following day, and who is as close to a heroine as can be found in the unhinged ensemble drama She Dies Tomorrow – but also the film’s writer-director Amy Seimetz, who shares her protagonist’s forename.
She Dies Tomorrow begins with the character Amy, upset. Her teary eye opens (in close-up), with strange neon lights playing on her face and reflecting in her pupil. This, we shall soon learn, is the moment when her realisation of imminent mortality is taking hold. “I didn’t know you very well,” goes her accompanying voiceover. “We only knew each other for a short time. But it was a really nice time, that period of time that we spent together.”
Amy is already thinking of her life in ephemeral, elegiac terms, as though it is practically done already – and perhaps we too, as we listen, are reminded of the brevity of our time together, for all its niceness, and of our own approaching doom. Yet the ‘you’ to whom Amy speaks here is not some generalised addressee, but her lover Craig (Kentucker Audley), half-seen in flashback through a doorway as he paces and rants. “It’s over, it’s fucking over, I’m fucking dying!” he says, “There’s no tomorrow!”
What he does not know is that merely by giving verbal expression to this belief in his own imminent end, he has infected Amy with the same conviction, just as he himself was infected by the person who delivered pizza to the desert bungalow where Amy and Craig were holidaying and taking mushrooms together – and Amy will in turn pass on the condition to others, creating a snowballing apocalypse of angst.
A recovering alcoholic haunted by thoughts of what might have been had she not had an abortion in her early twenties, Amy is now alone, back in the LA house that she has only recently purchased, as a bricks-and-mortar investment in her future. Yet none of that matters any more, since she too, like Craig, no longer believes in tomorrow. Distracted and already mourning herself (her turntable plays Mozart’s Requiem on repeat), Amy will inadvertently transmit her existential affliction to her friend Jane (Jane Adams), leading Jane, still dressed in her pyjamas and with a bandage on her wrist, to gatecrash the home of her brother Jason (Chris Messina), who is celebrating the birthday of his wife Susan (Katie Aselton) with couple Brian (Tunde Adebimpe) and Tilly (Jennifer Kim). This satirical sequence perhaps best encapsulates the disquieting impact of She Dies Tomorrow, as Jane’s eccentric, unsettling presence and all her compulsive talk of death have a confronting, disruptive effect, exposing the vanity of these sophisticated middle-class Angelenos’ lives, and quickly driving them, with the merest reminder of their mortality, into a terrified abandonment of their bourgeois values.
Upon first hearing from the distressed Amy, Jane advises her to “just pause” by “watching a movie”. Amy responds, despairingly: “A movie’s an hour and a half” – not a good use of her time when death is so near. As we watch Seimetz’s movie, which is just short of an hour and a half, we too are just filling time and looking for distraction – and yet She Dies Tomorrow never lets us pause or relax, but rather keeps delivering its sustained assault on the viewer’s comfort zone and reminding us, uneasily, of our own inexorable demise.
There is much else in She Dies Tomorrow that feels metacinematic: apart from the name shared by protagonist and filmmaker, there is the recoupling of Sheil and Audley who had, in the Florida noir of Seimetz’s directorial debut feature Sun Don’t Shine (2012), similarly played lovers in a relationship doomed to be short-lived. There is also the casting of Aselton, whose own survival horror Black Rock (2012) concerned characters contemplating mortality (that film’s key line, “We are all dying,” is here paraphrased by both Jane and Jason).
And there is the appearance, in a smaller role, of the filmmaker Adam Wingard, whose A Horrible Way To Die (2010) and You’re Next (2011) – which both featured Seimetz as an actor – have titles and themes that reflect the serial slaughter found in She Dies Tomorrow. Seimetz uses this patchwork of filmic intertexts and associative meanings to dress up her own work, even as Amy seeks to have her own skin tanned, stitched and recycled into a leather coat for someone else. Here mortality itself is a hand-me-down.
Craig had earlier insisted that he was “not fucking crazy”. It remains an open question whether the condition the film posits is a collective madness, or something more supernatural (as the flashing lights and distorted sounds that accompany its onset might suggest) – but whether their pernicious prognostication is merely a symptom of mass hysteria or will prove uncannily accurate, once these characters have become convinced that they will die tomorrow, they respond with increasingly deranged acts, including suicide and murder.
This moral emptiness, presented as a corollary of our innate mortality, is what makes this film so unnerving. It is like Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998) without the end of the world, or David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) without the protean pursuer – a horror movie which reduces its central fear to the most fundamental form of existential dread.
She Dies Tomorrow ends as it begins, with Amy. It is now the day after she first became sure of her impending death. She is alone, confused, depressed, alive, ready, waiting. Perhaps she will die today. Perhaps she will be like one of those deluded Doomsday cultists left behind after the forecast time of rapture has come and gone. Or perhaps she has just awoken from a hallucinatory mushroom trip, and is still under its lingering influence.
She is nevertheless caught in the same liminal state that defines all human existence – a temporary condition, stained with the foreknowledge of its own inevitable end. The suspense in which Amy is held in the film’s final scene belongs to all of us – and in increasing our awareness of it, in using her art to heighten our sensitivity to our own transience, the other Amy has gifted us an extraordinary, uncanny memento mori.
Originally published: 11 September 2020