She Dies Tomorrow is a movie that begins by watching you. Actress Kate Lyn Sheil’s eye fills the screen, mascara clotted between wet lashes and smeared around the socket as red and blue lights flicker along her sclera. “It was a really nice time, that period of time we spent together,” she says in dispassionate voice-over, speaking to someone we can’t see, or maybe directly at us. But either way we understand that we’ve come in at the end, as if we’ve wandered into a crater after the bomb has dropped.
Amy Seimetz’s second feature, after 2012’s Sun Don’t Shine, is both raw and oblique, in a way that suggests something torn from life, fashioned into something new but with the seams left bare. Sheil’s character, a recovering but relapsing alcoholic, isn’t just called Amy. As the end credits inform us, “Kate Lyn Sheil is Amy,” just as Seimetz’s real-life friend, Jane Adams, is Jane. The story is too fantastical to be autobiography, and although Amy is the central character, and shares the name of the writer-director, the film drifts away from her for long stretches, following the ripples her actions send through the lives of the people around her, and the people around them. It’s personal without being solipsistic, as much about what it’s like to be around Amy as it is about what it’s like to be her.
Amy has been pushing for a fresh start, buying the first house she’s ever owned, which Jane tells her was “the best thing you could have done.” But when we catch up with her, she’s relapsing, cleaning out a glass so she can fill it with white wine. The reasons stay buried for a little while, although an early scene, in which the camera peers through a cracked door at a man who’s throwing furniture around a room and screaming about how he’s not crazy, may have a lot to do with it. (Seimetz recently filed a restraining order against her former fiancé, Primer and Upstream Color filmmaker Shane Carruth, alleging a history of violent behavior and threats.) But for whatever reason, all of her regrets have caught up with her at once, because she believes that this is the last day she has to live.
Jane, not surprisingly, takes this as Amy’s announcement that she plans to harm herself, or at least do something dangerous. But after dashing over and finding Amy sprawled out on her floor, caressing the wooden planks and talking about how she would like to be, like the tree those boards were once part of, useful in death, Jane reminds herself of the recovery mantra that she needs to “let go and let God.” That Jane can’t bring herself to follow through on this motto—“You’ve put this idea of dying in my head,” she says to Amy’s voicemail—seems like the key to She Dies Tomorrow’s psychic contagion. Before long, Jane begins to share Amy’s conviction that she’s about to die, and everyone she tells begins to share it, too, in a chain reaction that eventually infects characters played by Chris Messina, Tunde Adebimpe, and Michelle Rodriguez. Some turn reflective. Some instigate overdue breakups. Others tend toward violence, because no consequence could arrive more quickly than their inevitable end. Amy becomes convinced that the most productive thing she can do is arrange for her skin to be made into a leather jacket after she’s gone.
Seimetz glides back and forth between the concrete and the metaphysical, drawing equally from her history in the mumblecore movement and the influence of experimental film legend James Benning, who makes a cameo near the end of the movie. One moment we’re watching Jane photograph microscopic organisms or listening to her sister-in-law (Katie Aselton) drunkenly ramble about the sexual habits of dolphins, and the next we’re watching Sheil stride toward the camera in a hail of strobe lights, her face fixed in an expression that might be pain or ecstasy or merely resignation. The aura of free-floating fear, passed on at close range between intimates or through chance encounters, has uncanny resonance in the COVID era, but the movie shouldn’t be limited to that. It’s too eerie, too protean to be tied to a specific reading. Seimetz isn’t transcribing experience or an environment. She’s capturing a state of being.
She Dies Tomorrow is a movie you could watch several times before you understand it. (After two viewings, I feel like I’ve barely cracked the surface.) But there’s something magnetic at its core that makes you want to return, some combination of Sheil’s mercurial passion, Adams’ moral intensity, and Seimetz’s arresting images, her way of planting pictures in your mind before they make their way into the story so that when they do arrive, it feels like you’ve already been there before. It’s a movie about cycles, getting stuck in patterns you don’t realize are patterns, and you have to disassemble the parts of your life built around them before you can forge a new, straighter path. As in recovery, the first step toward being OK is understanding how you’re not.