Review

She Dies Tomorrow review – an anxious film for anxious times

A woman's belief that she will die tomorrow begins to spread through a small town in writer-director Amy Seimetz's eerie exploration of anxiety

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow is the latest film shot in the months before the global pandemic to find itself accidentally positioned as an explicit metaphor for the experience. It absolutely works as one, though the actor-turned-filmmaker originally wrote and directed this eerie, low-budget drama as a personal exploration of her own battles with anxiety – a probing into that nagging sense of dread telling you that something is wrong, that something bad is going to happen, until all you can do is sit, and think, and wait for the worst to come.

As though to reaffirm the film as autobiographical, our central character here is also named Amy, though she's played by actor Kate Lyn Sheil. In the film's enigmatic opener, we're introduced to Amy as she wanders the rooms of her Los Angeles home – confused, restless, and reeling from what we at first assume to be a breakup. Things get weirder, though, when Amy is struck by a flashing, neon vision. A close-up of her bloodstream confirms something chemical happening inside her body. And as if from nowhere, Amy is suddenly inflicted with the idea of her coming demise. She's going to die tomorrow, no doubt about it. Her conviction is absolute.

Is Amy experiencing something real, or is it entirely imagined? Seimetz leaves the answer open to interpretation, well aware that – as far as anxiety is concerned – it doesn't matter. If it feels real, it is real. As more and more people – Jane Adams, Chris Messina, Michelle Rodriguez – come into contact with Amy, this strange illness seems to rub off on them. And as the thought of death takes hold for each individual, the film – leaving Amy to explore the fallout of infection with a cast of characters – seems to ask how we, the viewer, might spend our last day on Earth under the same circumstances. How would we deal with the sudden notion of our own demise? Lots of lying down, staring into space, and mindless chatter, according to the characters here, the realisation of death turning most of them into quiet and contemplative zombies.

The idea that one person's anxiety can rub off on others speaks a thousand truths in this pandemic-stricken world, of course. As the virus, or wave of hysteria, or whatever it is, gathers momentum, it's hard not to see the internet age being reflected back at us – a place where a perceived threat can go viral in a matter of minutes, fear spreading like wildfire through millions. Anxiety is often depicted as a solitary kind of despair, but it can also be contagious, Seimetz's film suggests, though she could not have predicted just how prescient her film would come to seem following the events of this year.

It would not be quite accurate to call this a horror film. It's more of a mood piece with indie sensibilities that flirts with body horror conventions, though there is little drama, so to speak, and nothing – as with most great horror – that really lingers with you afterwards. Moments of unexpected humour, like a conversation about the sex lives of dolphins, occasionally suggests we're watching a black comedy. The film also has a lot in common – tonally, visually – with Shane Carruth's Upstream Color, another film about a strange biological phenomenon (Carruth and Seimetz used to be a couple). But more than shocking us or scaring us, Seimetz seems more intent on recreating the uncomfortable atmosphere of anxiety; a world where nothing can be enjoyed because, hey, tomorrow is no longer a thing.

There's certainly a lot to unpack, thematically, though the concept is perhaps more fascinating than the execution; a film that's more interesting to talk about than to actually sit through. Even at 86 minutes, the pace drags, while the nature of the phenomenon – the way it sends everyone into a muted trance – imbues the film with a lethargy that some viewers will also find contagious. Seimetz absolutely succeeds in creating a feeling of disconnect through dreamy photography and an alien soundscape. But as an experience, it lacks the detail and cohesion to allow proper investment.

She Dies Tomorrow is now available to rent on Curzon Home Cinema.

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