Review: She Dies Tomorrow stuns stylistically, but falters elsewhere
What happens when death feels like it can lurk around any corner? Is it liberating? Or, as plenty of us have felt this year, does it send us into a paralyzing, numbing spiral? Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow might have been shot last year, but it’s perhaps the most 2020-feeling film to be released thus far, tapping into the collective feelings of anxiety and despair that have defined life as it is now.
Seimetz’s film follows Amy, a young woman convinced that she (as the titular phrase goes) has only one more day to live. The film begins in media res, following Amy at home as she makes her preparations for death — online shopping for urns, spinning her favorite records on loop, grazing the floors and sprawling along the walls for one final time. As the night progresses, Amy’s friend Jane becomes convinced of this delusion too, infecting a host of other characters with notions of impending doom. Less terror-inducing and more subconsciously affection, She Dies Tomorrow is not a horror in the traditional sense, but a character study in how one reacts to such a horror as dying.
As the film’s central duo, Kate Lyn Shiel and Jane Adams anchor the film in their brilliant performances. Amy is a difficult character to tap into, but Shiel immerses herself in the defeated resignation of her character, rarely breaking the morose aura she carries with her. In a practically opposite turn, Adams is all nerves as Jane, capturing the sheer terror that comes with knowing death is on one’s trail. In one scene, where Jane crashes a family birthday party, Adams changes the temperature of the moment instantly, morphing the warmth of the gathering into a chilling panic. Both Adams and Shiel dial completely into the horror of imminent death, and their opposite reactions make for a fascinating parallel throughout.
While the film’s central problem is a psychological one, Seimetz is less interested in why these characters think they will die, but what an inescapable death feels like. To Amy, death is a solitary experience, isolating and cruel in it’s carelessness. Her experiences are often captured from afar, alone in a wide-open vista of dread. As she wages on a nihilistic path towards her final moments, Seimetz constantly highlights the sense of just how alone Amy truly is. Other characters see their last moments in an impressionistic euphoria, with Seimetz splattering Brakhage-esque visions of colors colliding and blending into each other across the screen. It is an incredible feat to distill not just one, but multiple perspectives on dying into a wholly unique vision, and Seimetz pulls it off in just her second feature.
But for how well She Dies Tomorrow captures the feelings of impending doom, the film falters in it’s hesitance to explore these characters outside of their fatal predicament. As much as we are immersed in Amy’s path towards destruction, we rarely get a glimpse into who she is. Save for brief memories interspersed throughout the film and references to her alcohol troubles, Amy remains stoic and imperceptible throughout the film’s run. With such mortal stakes invested in Amy’s story, it is disappointing that the film glosses over her characterization in pursuit of it’s gloomy atmosphere. Supporting characters are even less developed, turning their last breaths into a languishing “whatever.” This withholding of character detail ends up preventing the audience from caring whether or not their delusions of doom are even true.
Although there may be some problems along the way, She Dies Tomorrow fuses Seimetz’s masterful formalism with performances in lockstep with her dreary vision. Twitter was filled with posts about how 2020 was going to “be a movie” mere months ago — Amy Seimetz fulfilled those wishes.