In the time preceding Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s death, the renowned composer had begun working on his Requiem in D Minor. The requiem mass was left unfinished upon his death, and according to his wife Constanze, Mozart had said, with tears in his eyes, “I fear that I am writing a requiem for myself.”
“I am going to die tomorrow,” Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), the woman at the center of She Dies Tomorrow, says confidently, replaying a cover of Mozart’s Lacrimosa as the night goes on.
Instantly, the line prompts one to wonder: What would you do if you knew you were going to die? If, one day, something just clicked, and you knew that tomorrow was that day. You don’t know how. You don’t know why. You simply know what you have said aloud, “I am going to die tomorrow.”
Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow is about this feeling, the same one that Mozart felt centuries earlier. It’s a mood piece more than anything else, sometimes unsettling, sometimes hilarious, and always intriguing. Calling it strictly a horror movie seems like a disservice, but it is playing with the notion of death as a looming specter is familiar territory for the genre. This contagious existentialism isn’t overblown as it passes from person to person, like a plague that needs nothing more than someone’s mere presence in the room.
Plenty of filmmakers have mined this territory — just look at contemporary horror movies like The Ring with its videotape or It Follows with its sexual transference. But Seimetz opts out of using anything quite so physical to spread her disease — if you can even call it that. The thought of death infects everyone and everything, the mere presence of one individual passing it to the next. Amy gives it to Jane (Jane Adams), Jane gives it to Susan (Katie Aselton), Jason (Chris Messina), Brian (Tunde Adebimpe), and Tilly (Jennifer Kim), and so on and so forth.
There is no clarity on how it started or how it spread as far as it did, but that mystery — which the film has no interest in solving — is part of what makes She Dies Tomorrow so unsettling and perfectly suited to our pandemic-stricken world. Seimetz and cinematographer and frequent collaborator Jay Keitel create an ethereal feel with the way they present characters dealing with this existential quandary. Think the immaculate compositions that open Lars von Trier’s Melancholia or the haunting haze of Kate and Laura Mulleavy’s Woodshock stripped down to their barest bones.
The film’s beauty isn’t limited to its gorgeous strobe lighting, switching from red to blue and practically stunning both viewer and character. It is riveting to watch characters move through spaces, with the camera emphasizing every little sensory experience. When death is coming, every sensation is heightened. Even something as simple as feeling the grass or dirt against your body is a revelation. Kate Brokaw’s editorial touch is just as essential, creating a sometimes jarring and uniquely paced experience that may frustrate some but proves immensely effective.
She Dies Tomorrow also brilliantly oscillates between tragedy and comedy, with the same kind of pitch-black sense of humor and sincere empathy for its characters as Yorgos Lanthimos’ work. Despite the ensemble of odd personalities that populate the film — who do everything from throw chairs around to confess that they should have broken up months ago — Kate Lyn Sheil and Jane Adams serve as the two shining stars, as well as opposing but complementary forces. The way Adams reacts to the situations she is faced with takes the humor from subtle to hilarious, her deadpan nothing short of genius.
Sheil best exemplifies the tragic nature of the film’s premise without ever sacrificing the humor. Her crying eye, mascara running down it ever so slightly, opens the film, and her ponderous face remains ever-present in the audience’s mind. Without having to say much, one can understand everything she’s thinking about her own mortality. This ability to create a hypnotic work that places the audience directly in tune with its protagonists goes for all of Amy Seimetz’s work as a filmmaker, from her Florida-made works, When We Lived In Miami and Sun Don’t Shine, to her television series The Girlfriend Experience. She Dies Tomorrow only further proves she’s one of the most talented voices currently working in cinema.
She Dies Tomorrow. Starring Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Kentucker Audley, and Chris Messina. Directed by Amy Seimetz. Written by Amy Seimetz. Rated R. 84 minutes. Now playing in select drive-in theaters; available on-demand starting Friday, August 7.
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