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REVIEW: 'She Dies Tomorrow'

by Piers Marchant | August 7, 2020 at 1:46 a.m.
Jane (Jane Adams) inadvertently infects her doctor (Josh Lucas) with existential dread (and maybe something deadlier) in “She Dies Tomorrow.”

Traditional history has it that the genius composer Mozart was aware of his impending death at the age of 35 and spoke with his wife, Constanze, about his misery at the prospect. In despair, he supposedly wrote his final piece, "Requiem," for himself with his dying breath.

It is a contentious account -- various scholars argue against this version of his death in favor of less dramatically satisfying renderings -- but is part of the legend of the composer. So it is no coincidence that Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) plays "Requiem," in LP form, over and over on the night she is utterly convinced will be her last on Earth. Sitting in her newly bought home, unpacking her boxes, she confides in her friend and AA sponsor Jane (Jane Adams) about it ("There is no tomorrow for me"), while relapsing with a bottle of wine.

Jane, reeling, leaves her fallen friend, who has asked her, among other things, to take her body and make a leather coat out of her skin after she's gone, but shortly after returning home, she too realizes she won't live past the next day. Venturing to her brother's house, a tranced-out Jane then tells her brother, Jason (Chris Messina), his wife, Susan (Katie Aselton), and another couple, Tilly and Brian (Jennifer Kim and Tunde Adebimpe), of her impending demise. They too become convinced, and so forth, the word-of-mouth doom making its way like a virus (!) from person to person, with everyone who hears it becoming equally convinced of their own inescapable fatality, and acting accordingly.

Mind you, writer/director Amy Seimetz isn't creating another "Final Destination"-like narrative, with facile cause-and-effect clauses that free up our expectations for yet another gruesome death. In fact, she isn't concerned about the actual deaths at all -- none of the afflicted characters dies on-screen, and most of them are still alive, at least as far as we know, by the film's final shot.

Instead, she has made an existential, art-house horror treatment on the nature of our psychology. Humans, after all, are the only creatures eternally aware of their inexorable mortality, information most of us are able to tuck away behind various walls of denial and compartmentalization, right up until that moment when those curtains are pulled back and our fate is finally revealed to ourselves.

Seimetz's film cloaks itself in menace: Wandering around her disheveled house, and the grounds outside, there maintains a feeling of threat wherever Amy looks, from the creaking wooden floor -- "This used to be alive, now we just walk on it," as she laments to Jane -- to the dirt, leaves, and plant stems of the undergrowth of slanted woods outside her back fence. Later, as Jane goes back to work in her basement lab, peering through her microscope, even the observed cellular processes contain a palpable sense of dread.

The characters react in different ways to this knowledge -- tipped by a series of colored lights flashing over their faces at the moment of horrible realization: Jason and Susan tell their only child about what's going to happen, and try to enjoy their final moments together; Brian and Tilly go to the hospital where Brian's father lies in a coma and unplug him from life-giving machines, only to later lament not having broken up with each other some months before. Amy, our initial portal into this peculiar landscape, ends up wandering farther out in the desert, attempting to make final peace with herself before it's too late.

Seimetz, known primarily as a talented actress ("Pet Sematary," "Alien: Covenant"), has long shown such directing chops with a series of accomplished shorts in the early 2010s, but she has taken a broad leap with her second feature, creating a mood of chilling expectancy that in a lesser filmmaker's hands could have come off as either ridiculous, too nebulous, or over-heated. Instead, she threads the needle between these poles, producing a film of rich atmospheric dread, without ever losing its discombobulating tone. She has also created a delicious narrative puzzle arc of a picture, one you will almost certainly have to watch over again for the pieces to fall into place (re-watching the opening scenes helps a great deal, if you're interested).

As the film was conceived and shot long before our current covid-19 crisis, Seimetz couldn't have known how eerily apt her project would end up becoming at this moment in human history. In capturing the sense of impending dread that hums below the surface of our subconscious like a tiny whine of psychological tinnitus, she has made a perfect encapsulation of our current mood. Replacing that whine with a piece as sublime as Mozart's final composition turns out to the kindest thing she could have done.

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‘She Dies Tomorrow’

88 Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Chris Messina, Katie Aselton, Kentucker Audley, Tunde Adebimpe, Jennifer Kim, Josh Lucas, Michelle Rodriguez

Director: Amy Seimetz

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

Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes

Available through streaming services.

Brian (Tunde Adebimpe of the band TV on the Radio) is suddenly aware of his own mortality in “She Dies Tomorrow.”
Brian (Tunde Adebimpe of the band TV on the Radio) is suddenly aware of his own mortality in “She Dies Tomorrow.”

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