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Facing our dreaded fate in “She Dies Tomorrow”

Amy Seimetz’s first feature in eight years, now available on VOD services, is a thrillingly deadpan piece of postmodernism.

Amy Seimetz’s first feature in eight years, now available on VOD services, is a thrillingly deadpan piece of postmodernism.

Amy Seimetz is a rare type of auteur who is more widely known for her presence in other people’s projects than for her own work. A consistent secret weapon in Joe Swanberg and Adam Wingard’s films, she’s also dabbled in more mainstream roles in Alien: Covenant (2017) and a Pet Sematary remake (2019). In some ways, her own films reflect this equal commitment to both horror and mumblecore, but that genre-mashup terminology wouldn’t be accurate in describing the unique territory of her projects. Her film Sun Don’t Shine (2012) and her work on TV shows like The Girlfriend Experience and Atlanta has revealed her unique gift for investing talk-y dramas with the tension usually found in genre fare. Who better to direct a COVID-ready horror/existential drama/black comedy?

Seimetz’s new film, She Dies Tomorrow, opens with Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) candidly stating that she is certain she’ll be dying tomorrow. She explains this to her friend/sponsor Jane (Jane Adams) who is incredulous at first, but soon begins seeing colorful flashing lights that convince her of the same fate. As Jane spreads an intangible virus through her personal network, Seimetz weaves an ensemble narrative out of the numerous people (Chris Messina, Katie Aselton, Tunde Adebimpe, and Jennifer Kim, among others) who begin processing their impending death.

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A film with this concept might be one of two things: a fright fest full of incorporeal boogeymen hunting down the characters, or a thinly veiled theater workshop exercise based on the prompt: “If you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do?” While Seimetz’s film is mostly the latter, it offers a visual and intertextual nuance (not to mention an outstanding cast) that elevates the film into something more mysterious.  

Consider the film’s use of needle-drops, one of its most curious aspects. Out of her sizable record collection, Amy chooses to listen to “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem on repeat in her final hours. This section of the Requiem, a piece Mozart famously wrote but left unfinished on his deathbed, is so often included in films and advertisements that it has become a sort of emotional shorthand. But Seimetz isn’t so formulaic. Amy doesn’t have the means of processing what’s going to happen in her life, so she recedes inward, rubbing the surfaces of her home, drinks herself into a stupor, and latches onto the most obvious cultural reference she can find. Many characters in the film struggle to reconcile the image they have of what one should do in the event of their death with what they feel the capacity for in the moment. Amy, like Jane who later quotes Camus (from a Google search), relies on the wisdom of prefabricated cultural texts to make sense of her alien fate.

The film’s other musical reference is a more subtle one. As Jane wanders into a strangers’ house late in the film, “Daylight Matters” from Cate Le Bon’s 2019 album Reward can be heard softly in the background. On this comparatively breezy indie rock track, Le Bon intones in her deadpan poetry: “Promises speaking confusion and dice / A day in the life / Arranging the chairs / And I’m never gonna live it again.” The music cue bookends the film along with new characters who have taken their impending death in stride, stoned and giggling on the floor. Their poses mimic Amy’s from earlier, when she was found by Jane, laying in a drunken haze and touching the textures of her living room— the difference here being that these two are taking in their surroundings as a wondrous newness in contrast to Amy’s morose cataloguing.

If the two musical cues represent the emotional poles of the film, they parallel the characters who experience immense self-pity and lilting confirmation at the same time, uneasily accepting the absurdity of their tragic ends. In the final shots, a character lays framed in the middle of a rocky terrain as they ready themselves to be recycled by the earth, echoing the craggy image from Cumbria in Reward’s cover photo. Like Le Bon, Seimetz expertly details a culture of ambivalence, imbuing yuppie lifestyle signifiers with the specter of death. It’s this collision of hyper-real reference points that makes She Dies Tomorrow such an uncanny and contemporary film. Seimetz’s succinct packaging of these ideas proves she’s one of the most interesting filmmakers working today.

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