In Amy Seimetz’s moody genre piece She Dies Tomorrow—her first feature as a director since 2012’s Sun Don’t Shine—death is coming for people. Not necessarily in a Final Destination determinism sort of way, but in an existentialist death-comes-for-us-all sort of way. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) is seen wallowing in the wake of what appears to be a volatile breakup with a lover. She has fallen off the wagon, cracking open a bottle of wine as she curls up on the floor in despair.
When her friend Jane (Jane Adams) comes to check on her, it becomes clear that there is more to this depressive episode than merely a breakup. Amy insists that she will die tomorrow, that she knows she will die tomorrow.
While Jane is initially skeptical, it is not long before she understands the plight that Amy is suffering through — a plight which manifests itself to the audience in a brilliant haze of oscillating neon colors that stun our characters and impart some sort of mortal knowledge upon them.
This said, the neon light is never made narratively clear. Its implications are all that we come to understand, and even this is obfuscated somewhat by the obliqueness of the storytelling. Of course, it becomes evident early on that Seimetz is not concerned with the realism of this aura and providing it a definitive ruleset. It is something to be viewed more metaphorically.
But deciphering this metaphor, too, is cause for some confusion. It appears that this sci-fi premise of knowing one’s imminent death is being mapped onto depictions of severe depression and anxiety. In certain scenes, this metaphor provides what feels to me like a cogent message, particularly those scenes in which characters explicitly speak to their oncoming deaths and the others around them do not recognize this as a cause for concern, let alone a cry for help. There is a through-line here in which the film could be speaking on how the ignorance of mental illness allows for its perpetuation in harmful ways.
But this line of reasoning gets undercut by the unambiguous way in which the disease of knowledge that is the neon light gets passed from person to person. Whereas mental ailments like depression and anxiety affect people differently, the passage of these ailments in the film is presented as this universal, certain, alien entity that muddies the interpretation that this film is about something as serious as mental illness.
Seimetz has spoken about how She Dies Tomorrow came about in part from the idea that one person voicing their anxieties to their loved ones can cause that anxiety to spread to those loved ones, and also from the idea that death is certain and we must contend with its effects. For me, the translation of this contagious anxiety into a literal yet obtuse entity waters down the reality of the former. While it certainly leads to a somewhat intoxicating languid atmosphere, a malaise that permeates every frame in a truly gripping fashion, it also hinders the ability to map one’s own experiences onto those of these characters. There is a constant emotional barrier placed between the viewer and the characters, as the recipients of this death sentence become almost immediately resigned to their fate and shut down emotionally.
This last point is, counter-intuitively, not necessarily a flaw of the film’s story. It does complicate the metaphorical interpretation in a potentially unproductive way, but it also services the mood of the story quite well. And, while the defeatist attitudes toward death do not always square with the absurdist philosophy of Camus (who is name-checked midway through the film), it does illustrate a sort-of pre-mortem grieving process which is, in theory, fascinating.
As much as I may be quibbling with the minutiae of this story world as it relates to larger interpretation of the human condition, She Dies Tomorrow does provide a specific, singular vision that is engrossing. Some of the performances may waver in tone, but Sheil and Adams feel consistently in the pocket of what this script is going for. As such, this is a very watchable film for anyone who enjoys atmospheric genre films which are grounded in psychological horrors. And where my explicit interpretation of this oblique material leaves me with something to be desired, it is certainly the type of metaphorical cinema that will resonate for some.
She Dies Tomorrow: B
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)