She Dies Tomorrow, review: a contagious existential dread we know only too well

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Contagious: a woman's fear of dying - Jay Keitel
Contagious: a woman's fear of dying - Jay Keitel
  • Dir: Amy Seimetz; Starring: Kate Lyn Shiel, Jane Adams, Katie Aselton, Chris Messina. 15 cert, 84 min

Fatalism is catching these days, which makes She Dies Tomorrow feel more straightforwardly allegorical than its writer and director may have initially intended. At any other point in history, Amy Seimetz’s new film would have been a near-unclassifiable exercise in nihilist bizarrerie: imagine a languid Judd Apatow comedy crossed with one of the Final Destinations and series three of Twin Peaks. (Seimetz previously directed the 2012 thriller Sun Don’t Shine and is also an actress, seen recently in the Pet Sematary remake, Alien: Covenant and Lean on Pete.) But in the time of Covid, her tale of viral existential gloom feels grimly on the nose. 

It centres on a young woman called Amy (House of Cards’s Kate Lyn Shiel) who becomes unshakeably convinced one evening that the coming day will be her last on earth – though she doesn’t seem clear on, or even all that interested in, the specifics of her apparently certain demise.

Amy has just moved house, and a new phase of life seems to beckon: hints are dropped about an ongoing struggle with alcoholism and an abortion she’s only just begun to reckon with. But before the boxes are even unpacked, she’s browsing cremation urns online and listening to Mozart’s Requiem on repeat. Oh, and she also tries to find out if her hide could be posthumously fashioned into a leather jacket. Talk about going in style.

A friend called Jane (Jane Adams) visits and tries to allay Amy’s concerns. But instead, she also becomes seized by the same notion – then passes it on in turn to the guests at her sister-in-law’s birthday party, who sink into the same borderline-catatonic despair-ridden state. The setting is bland American suburbia, but Seimetz has the place crawling unease, using an arsenal of techniques that range in conspicuousness from some very Lynchian lighting tricks – think coloured strobes and sickly sodium glare – to subtly off-kilter cuts.

Meanwhile, the microscope in Jane’s house (she appears to be either an artist working with blood samples or some kind of laboratory technician) provides ample opportunity for cutaways to abstract liquid patterns and placental surgings.

The film is never less than time-passingly bonkers, but I rarely found it much more than that either, and its plot is so deliberately opaque that it seems to be daring you to mentally check out at every non-turn and un-twist. The narrative splinters into something resembling three bleak soap operas some unseen force is channel-surfing between. And while the performances are all haunting and engaging by turns – including some natty cameos for Michelle Rodriguez, the horror director Adam Wingard and the experimental filmmaker James Benning – their characters feel less like people than symbols in some strange, slowly unravelling code.

Playing on rotation in my own head throughout was a line from a film with which She Dies Tomorrow has absolutely nothing in common, The Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy living or get busy dying.” Seimetz’s characters aren’t busy doing either, and eventually you find yourself wanting to plead with them to please just pick one and get on with it.

On Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player and VOD from Friday 28 August