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Review: Few pandemic movies can match the hypnotic power of Amy Seimetz’s ‘She Dies Tomorrow’

Kate Lyn Sheil in the movie "She Dies Tomorrow."
(SXSW)

A psychological horror film that behaves like an absurdist comedy (and vice versa), “She Dies Tomorrow” fittingly begins with a crisis that might be mistaken, at first, for a relapse. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), a recovering alcoholic, awakens with a sudden premonition of disaster. She wanders the empty rooms of her recently purchased Los Angeles home, nursing a glass of wine. She listens to Mozart’s Requiem on repeat and shops online for an urn, presumably for herself. Eventually she calls a friend, who hears a familiar depressive note in her voice and shifts into intervention mode: “Don’t do anything you might regret,” she says. “Go for a walk. Or why don’t you try watching a movie?”

“A movie’s an hour and a half” is Amy’s benumbed reply — and that’s time she doesn’t have to waste. “She Dies Tomorrow,” for its part, has no intention of wasting yours. Written and directed by the actor-filmmaker Amy Seimetz, this grimly funny movie runs a fleet 85 minutes, though the cloud of moods, anxieties and ideas it leaves behind takes longer to dissipate. The concision of its story and the elasticity of its themes are crucial to its peculiar potency: Operating within tight narrative and budgetary confines, Seimetz seeks to reshuffle our perceptions, to alter our sense of how movies can represent the unrepresentable.

When the aforementioned friend, Jane (Jane Adams), stops by for a visit, Amy breaks the bad news that has haunted her from the opening scenes: “I’m going to die tomorrow.” Her stubborn, inexplicable fatalism quickly sends Jane out the door, but without knowing it, Amy has planted a seed. By the time Jane crashes a small gathering at the home of her brother, Jason (Chris Messina), and sister-in-law, Susan (Katie Aselton), she’s become convinced that she too is going to die tomorrow, a belief that sweeps rapidly through the movie and infects the other characters we meet like — well, a virus.

Too on-the-nose? Maybe, but Seimetz’s film comes by its relevance honestly, which is to say completely by accident. Amid the inevitable onslaught of pandemic-themed movies and TV shows headed our way in months and years to come, surely none will achieve this one’s uncanny prescience, and only a few may match its queasy, ambiguous power. Originally scheduled to premiere in March at the South by Southwest Film Festival, one of the first major public events to cancel due to the novel coronavirus, “She Dies Tomorrow” tells the story of a different kind of pandemic — a psychic contagion. It’s about the power of suggestion, how something as intangible yet unshakable as dread can spread and take deep root in the human consciousness.

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Jane Adams and Chris Messina in "She Dies Tomorrow."
Jane Adams and Chris Messina in “She Dies Tomorrow.”
(Jay Keitel)

Is death really on the horizon for Amy, Jane and their friends? The movie declines to say. Seimetz doesn’t shy from the conventions of cinematic horror; there are a few images of blood and broken glass, plus some ominous Lynchian droning on the soundtrack. But she’s less interested in the visceral possibilities of her conceit than in its theoretical, existential implications. The question of what’s really going on matters less than the question of how her characters, particularly Amy and Jane, are affected by it. (The foregrounding of two heroines — either one of whom might fit the title — is just one of the movie’s stealthy homages to Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia.”)

Shortly before succumbing to the contagion herself, Susan blurts out in a drunken haze: “We’re all the same!” This line may come out of nowhere — actually, it follows a strange aside on the mating habits of dolphins — but it is also a widely accepted theory of human behavior, one that “She Dies Tomorrow” takes seriously enough to both uphold and challenge. Our response to a crisis, real or perceived, is one of the qualities that makes us human. And Seimetz, mixing panic-thriller conventions with rigorous character observations, measures that response in terms that are somehow both sympathetic and damning.

For two of the party guests (played by Jennifer Kim and Tunde Adebimpe), the realization that death is imminent proves oddly liberating. Social niceties quietly disintegrate; decisions they’d been putting off for weeks are taken without a moment’s hesitation. Notably, no one here really freaks out or descends into histrionics. A few tears are shed, but mostly everyone seems frozen, defeated, emotionally immobilized. The characters appear walled off from one another, not only by their hesitant dialogue and faltering eye contact, but by the very spaces in which they move — clean, uncluttered rooms in a nocturnal Los Angeles that has rarely seemed quieter or more eerily depopulated.

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A curious idea emerges: What if, rather than disintegrating in the face of the apocalypse, most of us — at least, those privileged enough to observe that apocalypse from the relative safety of our homes — chose not to fight the threat or help others, but to retreat further into our own isolation? What if complacency set in, because giving full, shrieking voice to our inner turmoil were simply too horrible, and too exhausting, to bear?

On one hand, it would seem, Susan’s theory has been dispiritingly confirmed: We are all the same. But on the other, we surely couldn’t be more different. “She Dies Tomorrow” is nothing if not a celebration of individual eccentricity, something it manages through the jagged novelty of its form and the distinctiveness of its principal actors.

Tunde Adebimpe in "She Dies Tomorrow."
Tunde Adebimpe in “She Dies Tomorrow.”
(Jay Keitel)

Sheil, whose bone-dry wit and chiseled glare have been fixtures of American independent cinema for the past decade (including “Sun Don’t Shine,” Seimetz’s 2013 debut feature), hints at private aches that her impending demise has brought to the surface. Her journey, which leads her at key moments away from L.A. and out into the surrounding desert — and sometimes into flashbacks to happier times with her boyfriend (Kentucker Audley) — is captured in off-kilter wide shots and intense closeups. No matter what our vantage, these images suggest (they were shot by the cinematographer Jay Keitel), her experience remains essentially unknowable.

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That’s true, to some extent, of Jane and all the other characters we meet. But while Seimetz may have given Amy her name, you come away wondering if she has given Jane more of her sensibility. Jane is a walking oddity; she spends most of the movie in floral-print pajamas (proper death attire matters more to some than others), and the always terrific Adams has a ball with the character’s deadpan mannerisms.

But Jane is also an artist, a painter of abstract forms who draws inspiration in part from dark-colored substances she peers at under a microscope. Seimetz too is an artist, one situated excitingly between the independent fringe and the commercial mainstream. (A writer, director, actor and producer, she’s one of the key creative forces behind the TV series “The Girlfriend Experience” and recently appeared in mainstream horror films “Alien: Covenant” and “Pet Sematary.”)

And when Seimetz peers through her own lens, what does she see? We get some sense from “She Dies Tomorrow’s” own transfixing leaps into visual and sonic abstraction. At key intervals the movie employs bright red and blue strobe-lighting effects and cranks up the volume on the Mondo Boys’ intensely operatic score — surreal interludes that could be articulating a level of dread, horror and possible awe that is beyond the characters’ ability to express. In these startling, moving moments, Seimetz seems to speak for them — and maybe, more than we care to admit, for us.

‘She Dies Tomorrow’

Rating: R, for language, some sexual references, drug use and bloody images

Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

Playing: Opens Aug. 7 at Vineland Drive-In, City of Industry; Mission Tiki Drive-In, Montclair; and on VOD platforms

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