Amy Seimetz’s absurdism and existential dread depicts everyday grief and matches the pandemic’s “new normal”

Savina Petkova on Amy Seimetz’ ‘She Dies Tomorrow’ (2020)

If we need an exciting new name to counter the overused notion of (white male) auteurism, it’s Amy Seimetz. Not your usual actor-turned-director, Seimetz worked in distribution circuits before making her debut with the Floridian thriller Sun Don’t Shine (2012), which opened to praising reviews at SXSW. But it’s with She Dies Tomorrow that she makes an even bolder statement of self-assertion. 

Both films share a signature uncanniness for rendering familiar situations disturbing. Sun Don’t Shine’s runaway-road-trip-love-story wore genre elements on its sleeve, her new sophomore feature articulates its plot mainly through a metaphor. She Dies Tomorrow is, as the characters repeatedly mumble, about having “no tomorrow”, when life-affirming YOLO attitude is replaced by an existential dread that everything is final and it ends today. In examining the thin line between teleology (a branch of philosophy suggesting that the conclusion as a category itself is an essential part of meaning-making) and the cinematic equivalent of the death drive, Seimetz has made a film that would tickle your inner Jean-Paul Sartre.

Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) wakes up gasping for air on a bright morning, inexplicably certain in the fact that she will die the next day. Despair and quiet acceptance reign as her eyes gloss over half-furnished rooms and their half-painted walls — this house, it seems, harbours the impossibility of future times. Using the uninhabited home as an entry point to the character’s dubbed paranoia already dispenses with the need for backstory while imbuing the plot with unresolved trauma. 

A film about the unobtainable future and arresting angst, She Dies Tomorrow explores expressivity at both ends of a dramatic spectrum between tragedy and comedy, which makes its visual language distinct. On the one hand, the consistently precise camerawork seeps dread into the bone with recurring alternation between long takes and disorienting rapid cuts. In addition, Seimetz’s trust in the Mondo Boys with the film’s score transposes the same intention of combining two contrasting components onto the aural aspect of the film. For example, Mozart-inspired requiems expand and extend their tensions but are soon cut short by newcomer Kate Brokaw’s razor-sharp editing to a rather comic effect. In both cases, the transitions between the two contrasting elements leaves room for the underlying absurdity of the film’s one immaterial character — fear itself.

Yes, Amy is delusional and her fear is contagious. Even though the audience enters the film world through Amy’s inner fears, after a short meeting between the two, it’s Jane (Jane Adams) that takes over the second half of the film. A smooth, virus-like transition between one protagonist to the other dismantles any hierarchy of characters in a way that illness does — as it does not pick or choose, it just spreads. While the plot recounts a simple story of the horror of one’s mortality as metaphorically infectious, its implications adorn it with farcicality in a way both infantile and profound. Such a coupling might sound counterintuitive but it does rely on a complex notion of spectatorship: the audience’s full suspension of disbelief conjoined with a critical (ironic) reflection on everything that happens on screen.

Jay Keitel, who also lensed Sun Don’t Shine, has chosen a steady, almost clockwork horror grammar in conveying the slow advance of an abstract monster (approaching death). However, low angles and camera positions often frame the soles of feet and close-ups focus on gestures that convey urgency in both neurotic movements and slow, hopeless caresses (of walls, for example). While characters seem perched at the end of the frame, as if they could walk or fall out of it any second, the immediacy and impending doom is translated in such a straightforward way that it’s both arresting and humorous. Keitel’s cinematography mimics Seimetz’s ambiguous approach to scriptwriting: its amalgamation of make-belief identification and critical distance.

She Dies Tomorrow offers a neon-lit frenzy. It translates the heavy burden of living in this world in a fatalistic way while complaining that it’s too heavy in an even more human way, thereby brushing the actual pessimism of it aside. With a distinctive sense of dark humour easily mistaken for cynicism, the film finds Amy going to great lengths to find a tailor that would turn her skin into a leather jacket after her (shortly approaching) death. Seimetz’s achievement is to distil paranoia and condemn nihilism in fresh and rewarding ways. Her singular approach is reflected in her work with mumblecore screen favourites Sheil and Adams, who roam her frames in manic search for meaning, masked as defeatism, allowing the characters to blend into a well-rounded image of “being-towards-death”. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised to see She Dies Tomorrow used in memes and philosophy classes alike.

She Dies Tomorrow’ is available on Curzon Home Cinema and Digital Download in the UK 28 August 2020.

Savina Petkova

By Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a PhD student at King’s College London and a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She earned her Masters in Film Studies at University College London and has written for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, Moving Image Artists Journal, and other publications.