Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The movie begins with a huge close-up of an eye, which stares ahead as various colored lights or filters change the hue of what we’re seeing. This first image in Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow is arresting, and it serves as a useful notice of what’s to come: This is a movie that looks cool, is willing to confront and test you, and maybe feels just a little familiar (ah yes, the giant Vertigo/2001/Blade Runner eyeball gag) in what it decides to put on screen.
Seimetz eases us sideways into the movie’s big whatsis. She Dies Tomorrow is an ensemble piece, although we do have a central character—a Typhoid Amy, as it were—whose behavior in the first ten minutes is more than a little arthouse-opaque. Amy (played by Kate Lyn Sheil) slumps around her apartment, over-serves herself wine (turns out she’s been sober for a while), and obsessively re-plays the same piece of music, using a turntable and an LP, of course, because this movie is too hip to have somebody sitting around listening to Spotify.
A friend, Jane (Jane Adams) comes over, alarmed that Amy is talking about the possibility of having her skin turned into a leather jacket. After Seimetz has teased out these mysteries for just about the right amount of time, we learn that Amy is gloomy because she has an awareness—a certainty, in fact—that she will die the next day. Not only that, but the awareness appears to be contagious, as Jane soon discovers in her own disturbed trajectory.
The film is an exercise in contact-tracing, conceived and shot before that term became a part of our everyday pandemic lives. Jane goes to the home of her brother (Chris Messina) and sister-in-law (Katie Aselton), spreading the “illness,” and a few more people are involved from there, including a doctor (Josh Lucas) Jane visits in a funny-sad sequence. The “Eureka” moment—or maybe it’s the opposite of “Eureka”—is sometimes visualized with a storm of red-blue-green lights and strobe effects, as though the lightning-bolt of death-knowledge needed a little razzmatazz.
That’s striking, although Seimetz is at her best in simpler scenes of (usually awkward) human interaction. A compelling actress (notably in Megan Griffiths’ The Off Hours and, at the other end of the economic spectrum, Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant), Seimetz does not appear here, but her eye for behavior is keen and often unsparing, as she proved in her first directed feature, Sun Don’t Shine. In creating scenes that reach for more surreal visions, Seimetz steers away from this strength, although there are some fine instances when the two impulses come together—for instance, the sight of a wounded character, badly bloodied, walking around with a smart phone still clutched firmly in her hand.
The indie-approved cast is fine, but things especially light up when Jane Adams staggers through; it’s like watching a downtown art project suddenly invaded by somebody playing Chekhov. Clad throughout in pajamas, earnest and lonely even after being “infected,” Adams reminds us of how good she can be when someone uses her spacey aura in a focused way, and she captures a kooky/tragic tone that seems to be the movie’s general goal. She Dies Tomorrow doesn’t always hit its mark, but is finally effective for its amusing sci-fi distillation of a potent idea: We’re all going to die, but we manage to forget that for a while—until we can’t.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.