Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow' captures this moment of knowing our time is short

In the midst of a pandemic, the window of the foreseeable future has shrunk. The fear in that is fodder for this gem of a film you won't easily shake.
Image: Kate Kyn Sheil
Kate Lyn Sheil stars in "She Dies Tomorrow."Neon
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By Sam Thielman, reporter and cultural critic

Over the last three years and change — and then at an accelerated pace since America's mostly ongoing coronavirus lockdown began in March — I've discovered I no longer have any use for the phrase "the foreseeable future," which used to mean anywhere from a week to a year from now. These days, if it means anything, it means "in the next few hours, at most."

I didn't expect a movie to perfectly capture that difficult feeling — doubly odd for how unfamiliar it is — so soon after many of us began feeling it, but then I saw "She Dies Tomorrow."

The "she" of the title is Amy, played to an imperceptible tremor by Kate Lyn Sheil. The film opens with Sheil's eye filling the frame, and deep in its pupil we can see ... something. That thing seems to have convinced Amy that she's doing to die — and soon we learn that her anxiety is a contagion. Her friend Jane (Jane Adams) at first refuses to believe her. Then she becomes just as convinced as Amy that she, too, will die the next day. Jane goes to visit her brother and passes along the same conviction.

I don't know how writer-director Amy Seimetz put so much movie in the 84 minutes she gave herself. If forced to classify "She Dies Tomorrow," I suppose I'd say it's a horror film, but it's also a relaxed, legato ensemble drama of social miscues and embarrassing jokes that reveal complexities of character. Seimetz also includes some fantastical elements, so possibly it's even science fiction.

Seimetz constructs a rich world in collections of apparently oblique, chronologically disordered scenes that fit together deep in your brain once the film is over. I was convinced I hadn't understood the plot until I began discussing the movie with a friend who'd also seen it — after which I then realized that I'd understood it perfectly but that I'd just needed to ask someone some questions about it. The questions, it turned out, answered themselves.

Any number of movies — good, great and forgettable — are cleverly plotted and told out of sequence; it's a favorite technique of "Out of Sight" and "Ocean's 11" director Steven Soderbergh, one of Seimetz's close collaborators. I enjoy working out a puzzling film's details, but buried revelations are the mechanism, not the subject, of the good ones. "She Dies Tomorrow" is very good, and its subject is overwhelming futility: not why you're going to die, but how you behave when you learn that. It's a timeless theme, obviously — we're all gonna die — but it's also timely.

How many of us bought something frivolous a few days after we learned we'd be working from home until ... well, now we don't know? How many of us ate something delicious we'd been avoiding to keep fit? Or, by way of contrast, how many of us decided to start working out more or made it a point to call our parents more regularly just to check in? Nearly everyone did something either a little foolishly impulsive or impressively mature but definitely out of character; I don't know anybody who didn't consciously tweak something in her life between April and March.

The corollary to this observation is that people — both the viewers and the film's characters — were wrong to be comfortable back before we were scared. Fear reorders our priorities, often for the better. "I should have done this for him years ago," Brian (Tunde Adebimpe) observes on a visit to his ailing father in the hospital after Brian becomes convinced that he, too, will die the next day.

We may count on stoplights to control oncoming traffic, but eventually there will be someone texting or trying to talk to a kid in the back seat, and that will be the end of things. What Seimetz's characters acquire over the course of her film is simple awareness: They know they're going to die very soon.

But are they correct?

I think the answer is in the movie; I'd have to ask Seimetz to know for sure, which I'd imagine she doesn't want. But I think I know. (Writing the first sentence of this paragraph, I thought about some hallucinogenic mushrooms mentioned late in the film and the timeline of the movie's events, and I'm a little more certain I understand what happened. I'm also more sure of the film's science fiction elements.)

You don't watch "She Dies Tomorrow" so much as ingest it, and as it wends its way through your system, it will do some strange things to you.

Many years ago David Cronenberg told me that he thought horror entertainment let viewers acquire immunity by exposure; this is a movie that strives for that effect. Its characters are aware of their own mortality simply because they've been around someone who believes death is coming soon. And they do shocking things, and they will infect you, too, with an understanding of your own mortality. Hopefully you won't shuffle off this mortal coil tomorrow, but you will almost assuredly do so sooner than you'd like. You, too, may shock yourself with what you do with that knowledge, if you are forced to finally accept that it's true.