There is a code ingrained into the popular consciousness that says we must all make the best of our final days. The idea is that people can be moved to fulfill — in the brief span of time between knowing they’ll die and their actual death — some of the things they always wanted to do but haven’t yet. She Dies Tomorrow, the experimental thriller from writer-director Amy Seimetz, is uninterested in these impulses, preferring instead to explore the mundanity of the pre-death experience. After all: aren’t people sooner paralyzed by the prospect of death than they are driven by it?
The film follows a young woman named Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) who is tormented by the absurd notion that she will die the next day. While her strange ailment initially seems like an isolated case, we soon discover that it’s transmissible and highly contagious. From Amy, it is passed on to her friend Jane (Jane Adams), and from Jane to several other people in her circle. Each of the affected is suddenly forced to reckon with their own mortality. It’s no coincidence that the director and protagonist share a first name; the premise is based on Seimetz’s experience that, in confiding to others about her anxieties, they became anxious too, setting off a chain reaction.
Seimetz demonstrates extraordinary precision in her vision of mass existential dread. Funny, then, that the film is most intent on contemplating the greater chaos of its characters’ circumstances. “Does it matter?” is a common sentiment among them all, and the writer-director uses these absurdist narrative elements to subvert cliched ideas about death and its adjacent mythology. Her script is darkly comic but empathetic, even philosophical — when death comes knocking, we all have a little bit of Socrates in us. Seimetz’s artistry is at its peak when she uses cinematic elements as a kind of “lens” that can be applied or removed, contrasting a romanticized version of her characters’ final hours against the real thing, banal and unglamorous as it might be.
Take the frequent “spells” that the characters go into when their symptoms set in. Amy, who has relapsed into alcoholism after catching the virus from the man she was falling in love with, enters a daze indicated by flashing, jewel-toned visuals and a low rumbling noise akin to a train approaching, or the onset of an earthquake. These spells are framed to show the characters intensely focused on something — we don’t know what, and it could be different for each of them — but the terror of watching them gaze so openly at a thing we cannot see is mesmerizing in itself, placing the audience in the spell with them.
Just as suddenly as the spell starts, we’re wrenched out of it with a jolting cut. Seimetz strips her filmic features away — no more colored lights, no music, no special effects — and the scene is left bare, detaching the viewer from the character’s interior world. Seimetz’s ability to create such effective moments of horror by withdrawing from her cinematic toolbox is spectacular on a creative level, but it also leaves us with an honest thematic depiction of the relationship between human beings and mortality. Can we only imbue meaning in our lives through aesthetic grandiosity? Do we need to imbue meaning at all?
In one scene, Amy is driving in slow-motion, a bottle pressed to her lips, hair whipping in the wind, a stirring piece of music playing as she does so. Her plight feels cinematically tragic. But when Seimetz cuts, and all of that disappears, we watch a car thump erratically along an ugly old road, clearly a danger to its driver and to others. The contrast is startling and almost hysterical. It’s no longer the transcendent moment that it was just a few seconds before. These abrupt edits plainly juxtapose mythological conceptions of death with their barren, realist versions.
Seimetz is just as masterful in her scripting and character building. The film is a lean eighty-four minutes, but it charts subtle differences in reaction between characters — not everyone has the same relationship to life and death, after all — while also giving each character the room to evolve and grapple with their circumstances as they edge closer to their final moments. But she doesn’t stray from her main thematic meditation, which is that people often imagine themselves and their lives to be different from what they really are.
Jane, for instance, makes it her priority to cobble together some idea of what might be happening to her, always through the prism of science and objectivity. She goes to the doctor. She begs Amy to explain what’s happening to her (“You’ve left me all alone with this.”) And when her sister-in-law Susan (Katie Aselton) disputes Jane’s sudden sense of dread, Jane retorts, “Humans are the only animal — or creature — that pretends to be what it’s not.” Humans might also be the only creatures compelled to apply greater significance to the natural cycle of life.
Amy takes a different approach. She fixates on raw materials, like the hardwood floor of her new house, which “used to be alive”; or her own skin, which she decides to have turned into a leather jacket after she’s gone so that she can be “useful in death.” Where Jane is concerned with making sense of her affliction while she’s still alive, Amy largely skips that stage in favor of making plans for how she’ll acquire a second life after an abrupt ending to the first. But Seimetz removes that lens of gruesome romanticism again when she has Amy visit a grizzled leather maker. His arresting description of how the skin is made into leather is almost unbearable — another pre-mortem whim that largely fails to live up to expectations.
The supporting characters have their own moments of moral contention, most of which have to do with making decisions about whether or not to leave dependents behind. Susan and Jason (Chris Messina) have a daughter to think of; Tilly (Jennifer Kim) accompanies Brian (Tunde Adebimpe) on a trip to the hospital where his father resides. These are, indisputably, some of the most difficult moments of the film, but Seimetz deals with them so matter-of-factly, a testament to the emotional groundedness of her filmmaking. Even in these remarkable conditions, the characters must remain attached to themselves and their loved ones.
“It’s okay,” Amy says to Jane after she first reveals her imminent death. “I mean, it’s not okay. It just is.” By the end of the film, she seems to have circled back, less assured than ever of what awaits her. “I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m ready…” She lies down, then sits back up. The facade is removed. “I’m not okay. I’m not okay. It’s okay; I’m not okay.” She Dies Tomorrow is a lucid work of art with an opportune message: in a world where nothing makes sense, where planning and scheduling and adhering to a normal conception of time is absurd, where the search for greater meaning feels futile, it’s okay to not be okay.