Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. Neon releases the film on Friday, August 7.
While the 2020 SXSW Film Festival has been canceled due to the coronavirus, IndieWire is covering select titles from this year’s edition.
Amy Seimetz has directed two movies over the past decade (as well as “The Girlfriend Experience” for Starz), but few recent American directors have demonstrated a greater singularity of vision. With her 2011 debut “Sun Don’t Shine,” Seimetz hovered in the confines of lovers on the lam with the world collapsing around them, watching as they wrestled with the queasy uncertainty of accepting that inevitability and running from it at the same time. “She Dies Tomorrow” expands that notion into a gripping seriocomic apocalyptic thriller that combines classic David Cronenberg body horror and with the scathing surrealism of Luis Buñuel. Envisioning a disease where the afflicted believe they’ll die by morning, the movie taps into a timeless anxiety with hilarious and disquieting results, often delivered in the same dose.
Its centerpiece — a character whose name suggests the filmmaker has personal investment in the stakes at hand — wanders through the movie like a ghost: Amy (“Sun Don’t Shine” star Kate Lynn Sheil) is a broken shell of a woman from the start. Reeling from various breakups and relapsing into her alcoholism as she roams an empty Los Angeles home, she’s a haunted figure disconnected from the world around her. Seimetz lingers in Amy’s confused state for minutes on end, as her behavior goes from quasi-suicidal to erratic and eerie.
By the time her older pal Jane (Jane Adams) pops by to check in, Amy has devolved into a baffling caricature of suburban disarray, lingering above her outdoor pool with a leafblower in one hand and white wine in the other, topping it off with a psychopathic grin. Then she collapses onto the hardwood floor of a vacant living room to pronounce her imminent demise. If “She Dies Tomorrow” only focused on this unusual breakdown, it would quickly devolve into a quirky psychodrama, a microbudget test case for merging unlikely tones. Instead, Amy’s meltdown provides only the starting point for a long night of sudden freakouts that gradually take hold of her extended network.
At first, Jane tries to talk Amy out of her proclamation, but as the two lose track of each other, Jane enters her own dazed mindset as she drifts to another social gathering and the malady spreads. Seimetz’s screenplay avoids the obvious tropes of the apocalyptic thriller, never once pausing for exposition or the standard survivor monologue to explain the threat at hand. Instead, the ideological contagion quietly spreads, as various sensitive souls begin to fear their own mortality. Completed just in time for a SXSW program canceled due to the coronavirus, the movie’s topical premise might be the best example of accidental timeliness in film history.
But “She Dies Tomorrow” doesn’t need a real-life pandemic to make its smart concept click. The ensemble expands with the unusual rhythms of a slo-mo zombie movie, as a dazed Jane — Adams becomes a dark visual gag as she roams the town in her pajamas — arrives at the classy house party of her brother (Chris Messina) and quickly irritates his self-centered wife (Katie Aselton).
But after Jane echoes Amy’s conviction that she’ll die tomorrow, the mood starts to shift from annoyance to deep-seated dread, and their houseguests (Tunde Adebimpe and Jennifer Kim) suddenly feel its lingering effects as they call it a night. “Maybe she’s right,” Adepbimpe’s character says. “Maybe we’re all gonna die tomorrow.” That conclusion sends the pair on their own soul-searching journey as they careen into a macabre “Before Sunrise” subplot that finds them arguing about their relationship, committing a sudden violent act, and breaking into a random house to watch the new day dawn.
Needless to say, “She Dies Tomorrow” keeps evolving its premise in surprising new directions, providing a template for exploring the erratic nature of human relationships under personal duress. The closest point of comparison might be the 2007 horror effort “The Signal,” where an unseen broadcast leads humanity to come to blows. But Seimetz has more intimate aims; she’s less invested in chronicling the end of times than the personal toll it would take on vulnerable people.
Directed in secret with Seimetz’s paycheck for acting in “Pet Sematary,” the movie works in fits and starts, with some fragments less engaging than others. As patient zero, Sheil’s inscrutable face serves as a disquieting weapon that gives the movie its chief emotional foundation, though some of the flashbacks to her former romantic partners (including “Sun Don’t Shine” co-star Kentucker Audley) work better than others, as the movie struggles to reconcile Amy’s journey with the broader impact of the disease she spreads. Still, her misadventures gather intrigue as the night goes on (including one highlight based around a peculiar soul-searching encounter with a farmer played by “You’re Next” director Adam Wingard), and she becomes the centralizing force that fuses the movie together.
“She Dies Tomorrow” ultimately becomes less of a linear survival story than a scattershot look at mental disarray. Seimetz collects the pieces into a mesmerizing audiovisual tapestry that includes a jittery score by Mondo Boys. Cinematographer Jay Keitel’s crisp nighttime imagery captures ominous shadows and neon-lit interiors alike, not to mention the occasional red-and-blue stroboscopic mayhem that dips into Gaspar Noé territory as Amy loses touch with the world around her. For viewers who aren’t prone to epileptic seizures, that destabilizing effect allows “She Dies Tomorrow” to enter its own plane of heightened logic, where every new encounter registers as a disturbing punchline about the anxiety that haunts us all.
By the time the movie introduces a character played by Michelle Rodriguez, splayed on her back with a droplet of blood cascading down her midsection as she casually announces, “I’m going to die,” it’s entirely consistent with everything leading up to it.
“She Dies Tomorrow” could be read a few different ways: as a treatise on emotionally damaged women urging the world to understand their plight, as an ironic statement on the isolating effect of Los Angeles living, or as a grander exploration of what it means to stare into the void as it washes over you. However one takes it, there’s no question that the movie’s gripping textures resonate with profound urgency.
Seimetz has conjured a beguiling narrative so tapped into the current worldwide panic that it might have been made in its aftermath. The movie concludes on a bleak note — that even a brand new day doesn’t expunge the terrors of the night before — as “She Dies Tomorrow” settles on an existential crisis readymade for this present moment, but just as applicable in any other.
“She Dies Tomorrow” was set to premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival in the Visions section.