‘She Dies Tomorrow’ wallows in existential dread

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

What would you do if you had one day left to live? It’s a familiar hypothetical, but in writer-director Amy Seimetz’s psychological thriller “She Dies Tomorrow,” this question has a newfound gravity.

The early scenes focus on Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), a recovering alcoholic in the midst of a relapse. The source of her crisis is an unshakeable feeling that she, as the title suggests, is going to die tomorrow. Amy isn’t suicidal — in fact, she wants to live. Yet she insists that her life is about to end. How or why Amy knows her fate is sealed is beyond the point. For all intents and purposes, we take her at her word: She is as good as dead.

When her artist friend Jane (Jane Adams) visits, Amy breaks the bad news to her. Jane instantly disbelieves Amy, but soon feels dogged by that same creeping notion. When Jane crashes her sister-in-law’s birthday party, the pattern continues and the psychological contagion spreads further. Jane infects the guests, informing them that she, too, knows she’s doomed: “The way you know when you’re about to get a cold the next day, but it just hasn’t hit yet.”

The eerie prescience of Seimetz’s premise is an unfortunate coincidence, but the viewing experience is better for it. Had “She Dies Tomorrow” debuted as intended at the South by Southwest film festival, which was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, its deft exploration of the characters’ various responses to their newly manifested mortality may not have resonated so distinctly. Seimetz’s script mostly succeeds through her even-handed depiction of difficult and oft-neglected topics such as parental guilt, dead romances and misunderstood mental illness.

Though it adopts several conventions of Hollywood thrillers, “She Dies Tomorrow” is more of a therapeutic psychodrama. With the specter of certain death looming over Jane and her social circle, they all drop the facade of politeness and become brutally honest, both with one another and with themselves. The societal conventions that once dictated their actions have lost their relevance, and fatalistic clarity allows the characters to burn bridges in manners that are at once relatable and farcical.

“She Dies Tomorrow” displays a unique sense of humor by injecting the overarching fatalism with moments of absurdist black comedy. As Amy comes to terms with her rapidly approaching death, for example, she browses online storefronts for a suitably fashionable urn. Then, she changes her mind — she’d rather be turned into a leather jacket, because at least she’d “be useful in death.”

Amy is an obvious stand-in for her namesake, the filmmaker, who imbues Amy with a natural believability. Seimetz’s unique sense of character and her frequent collaborator Sheil’s blank yet expressive performance work together to perfectly establish Amy in the opening scenes — she’s the sort of person who, in her abject melancholy, lies on the floor and listens to vinyl records of Mozart on repeat. Likewise, Adams adeptly plays Jane with a dry wit and impeccable sense of timing.

Despite the strong start, however, Seimetz’s script soon runs out of any solid ideas that could serve to elaborate on the premise. “She Dies Tomorrow” is impressively shot and edited, using a nonlinear timeline to create fragments of skewed perspectives that are brought to life in neon. The Mondo Boys’ hypnotic arrangement of Mozart’s “Requiem in D minor,” appropriately written on the composer’s deathbed, along with a droning original score, fill each scene with desolation. Yet for all this craft, “She Dies Tomorrow” doesn’t take its premise far enough. When it should arrive at a point, Seimetz’s story meanders into esoteric, albeit artful, abstraction.

Clearly, “She Dies Tomorrow” is intensely personal to Seimetz. However, her characters have so much soul-searching to do that they leave the audience behind. While it retains some of its impact because of Seimetz’s nuanced approach to conversations most veer away from, what mainly resonates is her depiction of humanity as incapable of facing unpleasant truths until they are inevitable. In an era of online classes and social distancing, “She Dies Tomorrow” works because it thrives on the mood Amy sums up as “It’s OK. I mean, it’s not OK. It just is.”

Contact Neil Haeems at [email protected].