It’s altogether fitting that “She Dies Tomorrow” was scheduled to have its world premiere at a film festival that was canceled, South by Southwest, because Amy Seimetz’s indie drama is definitely a movie for this particular, strange and scary time. Seimetz didn’t know it when she made the film, of course, but a movie based on a pervasive sense of all-encompassing dread that spreads from person to person is pretty much right in tune with the prevailing mood of 2020.
It’s a movie about existential panic that happens to be coming out at a time of, well, existential panic. That might make it the last thing some people want to see at this point, or it might make it a disquieting indie thrill ride through a dysfunctional world that isn’t really ours but kind of feels like it.
The lead character, probably not coincidentally named Amy, is played Kate Lyn Sheil, who might be best known for the TV series “House of Cards” and Seimetz’s “The Girlfriend Experience” but is a veritable indie queen through films like “Kate Plays Christine” and “Silver Bullets.” The first time we see her, it’s a closeup of her eye as a tear squeezes out. In short order, we learn that she’s bought a new house, she had a fight with her boyfriend and she’s unutterably sad for an unspecified reason.
Seimetz, who previously directed the 2011 feature “Sun Don’t Shine” as well as “The Girlfriend Experience,” isn’t interested in spelling things out. Things happen in quick flashes or are glimpsed through a doorway from the next room; especially in the movie’s opening stretch, scenes end abruptly and feel truncated, as if there’s more to say but no time to say it.
And Amy feels that way, too, because it turns out that she’s convinced that she’s going to die the next day. She may not know how or why, but she’s certain it’s going to happen, to the point where she’s looking into the logistics of having herself skinned and made into a leather jacket after her death.
Of course this plan makes no sense, but “She Dies Tomorrow” isn’t about sense. Deliciously disjointed and dreamlike, it eludes easy tracking and relies on the odd beauty of its imagery; at first, it makes you wonder how David Lynch might tackle a film about depression.
Wandering through her new house, which is still filled with unpacked boxes, Amy puts on a beaded gown and resists entreaties to calm down. When her friend Jane (played by Jane Adams, herself a friend of Seimetz’s and an indie queen from an earlier generation) suggests over the phone that Amy relax and see a movie, she dismissively responds, almost in a whisper, “A movie’s an hour and a half” – i.e., far too much time to waste. But Amy finds lots of time for Mozart’s Requiem, though, to be fair, she never seems to make it past the “Lacrimosa,” four minutes of doomy grandeur.
Worried about her friend, Jane comes to visit and finds Amy in the yard, in the dark and in her beaded dress with a glass of wine and a leaf blower. Amy explains that she knows she’s going to die tomorrow, which freaks out Jane so much that she leaves. Shortly thereafter, Jane is awakening in a cold sweat, convinced that she too is going to die the next day.
Faster than you can say “COVID-19,” the paranoia spreads from one character to another, barreling through a supporting cast that includes Chris Messina, Katie Aselton, Josh Lucas, Tunde Adebimpe and others. Jane drops in on a birthday soiree thrown by her brother and sister-in-law, and before long they and their party guests are gripped by the same fear. The story unfolds in stops and starts, in flashbacks (not always as helpful as they ought to be) and in dreamy images; everybody has their moments of doomy revelation, often while lit by stark blue or red light.
What started as a creepy psychodrama about depression can’t help but morph into a fatalistic black comedy, and from there into a horror movie of sorts — or maybe it remains all of those things at once, a disturbing balancing act given life by Sheil’s haunted gaze and Seimetz’s purposefully disorienting but chillingly evocative storytelling.
Most of the movie takes place during the long night that precedes the “tomorrow” every character is dreading — and at one point during that night, Amy changes the voicemail greeting on her phone to a simple, “There’s no need to leave a message.” And the movie itself, which confronts us with and revels in its vagueness, isn’t trying to leave us with a message, particularly one about a specific viral pandemic we’re facing. But its exploration of a spreading panic and fear of death can’t help but speak to the sense of malaise and dread that is never far from the surface these days.
Neon is releasing “She Dies Tomorrow” in theaters on July 31 and VOD on Aug. 7.