Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow offers a kind of conceptual virus
A single concept — that you are going to die tomorrow — lodges like a tick in the psyche of whoever hears it. Whoever hears it then passes it to more people, so it spreads like a lethal virus. There are a couple of ways to handle a premise like that. You can go the narrative, overly plotty way, figuring out what is causing this phenomenon and how best to defeat it. Or you can move in a more artsy and oblique direction, narrowing the focus to a few infected people and what the infection feels like. In She Dies Tomorrow, writer-director Amy Seimetz takes the second approach, which isn’t surprising. Seimetz is an actress as well as a director; she got her start in mumblecore, and you may have seen her most recently in Alien Covenant or Pet Sematary. So, like some of her peers before her, Seimetz marries arthouse and horror.
I truly wish I liked the result more. But I found it only sporadically enjoyable — mostly due to the actors, all of whom are on their game — and some of it just seems pointlessly obscure. For instance, near the end, one of the main characters — in terms of screen time anyway — turns up at the house of two young women we’ve never seen before. They, too, are infected. By whom? Everywhere else in the movie, we’ve seen, if you will, contact tracing — this person infects this other person, who then infects others. But here are these two random women, outside the chain of infection, yet carriers. After the fact we can justify this and theorize that this is how Seimetz establishes that the plague has spread outside the circle of family and friends we’ve been watching. But as we’re watching, it pulls us up short; we want to stop the film and say “Wait a minute, who…?”
That’s the trap of a diffuse, tonally drifty horror film like She Dies Tomorrow. The premise, it turns out, is intriguing enough to make us want answers. Seimetz isn’t offering any. She begins with Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), who mopes around her new house. Her concerned friend Jane (Jane Adams) comes over, and Amy says she’s going to die tomorrow. Soon, Jane goes in her pajamas over to her brother and sister-in-law’s house while they’re having a party, and says she’s going to die tomorrow. And so on. In some respects the movie reminded me of the even more minimalist (and more effective) Pontypool, in which a “word virus” turned people who heard certain words into zombies. Here, it’s just a concept that’s contagious. The movie is spookier on a cerebral, retrospective level than in the moment. It might explain why some critics have rated it kindly for its premise and the admittedly high caliber of acting, while others can’t get past the memory of the impatience it made them feel as they sat through it. The terror is almost entirely insular; when Amy at one point says she doesn’t watch TV, we think, how convenient — that way Seimetz doesn’t have to show the endless coverage of it on the news.
She Dies Tomorrow has also been lauded for its accidental relevance to our current reality, although if you took the parallel all the way you’d end up with morons shouting “I’m gonna die tomorrow!” at people wearing earplugs in public. (Implausible; Americans in a movie wouldn’t be so pugnaciously selfish and stupid. If the virus in Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 Contagion had spread faster because characters refused to wear masks, and insisted on going to bars and clubs, and sent their kids back to petri dishes calling themselves schools, we’d have laughed their suicidal behavior right off the screen. Ridiculous!) It’s possibly natural for a fearful section of viewers to hook into a film that seems to allude, however hazily, to the situation they’re afraid of.
As I said, this works almost better as an actors’ workshop than as a work of horror. (Calling it horror is almost cruel to it, since that just creates an expectation in the viewer of something, well, horrific — especially after the almost comical jump-scare of the title card.) Sheil, Adams, Chris Messina, Katie Aselton, Tunde Adebimpe, Josh Lucas, Michelle Rodriguez, Olivia Taylor Dudley — they all shine, because they’re given room to shine and an irresistible chunk of dramatic meat to gnaw on. A lot of them came up together or have worked together before or swim in the same indie-film waters; I’m never displeased to turn a corner in a movie and find Jane Adams there. The movie might best be described not as horror or thriller but as a creepy idea that its cast and writer/director then riff on. It’s like a jazz concept album, with various artists honking or tootling their soul’s response to a given theme. By all means try it, but bring all the patience you have.