I don’t know how she did it, but Amy Seimetz wrote and directed a movie in late 2019 that describes with almost clinical accuracy how it feels to be alive in America this week. It’s called “She Dies Tomorrow,” it’s newly available on demand, and it is about contagion. Not a contagion of disease but a contagion of dread.
It starts as an art-house puzzler before swimming out past horror into less easily defined waters. A young woman, Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), holes up in a dark house, drinking too much and Googling funerary urns. When a concerned friend, Jane (Jane Adams), stops by, Amy insists with barely contained terror that she is going to die tomorrow. Exactly how is beside the point. She just knows.
Jane returns to her house deeply rattled and gets back to work on a scientific art project, photographing microbes that look like big, beautiful bacteria. And then it hits her, too, with the punch of a freight train: She’s going to die tomorrow. It’s like the day before you get a cold, she says. Or feeling that your home is about to be invaded and they will show no mercy.
What’s going on here? Is it a literal virus? A vector of existential panic passed along like the flu? Or is this just what it’s like to wake up to the human condition after a lifetime of keeping it at bay? As the sensation of imminent doom spreads from character to character to character, “She Dies Tomorrow” takes shape as an allegory with just enough genre trimmings to keep us off balance. A spatter of blood on the walls here. A surge of suspense music there. The movie has been co-produced by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, whose own films — “Resolution” (2012), “Spring” (2014), “The Endless” (2018) — similarly blur the line between horror and the queasily ordinary. There, as here, we are invited to sail off the map into the metaphysical.
“She Dies Tomorrow” is about waking up to fear and embracing it as a constant. Jane’s brother Jason (Chris Messina) and sister-in-law Susan (Katie Aselton) have a brittle tension to their marriage that dissolves after they’re “infected” and the first wave of despair passes over them. “We say such stupid things,” says the formerly caustic Susan as the sun comes up on what she is certain will be her final day. Reassures her husband, “I like the stupid things you say.”
You could take this material and turn it operatic, as Lars von Trier did with “Melancholia” (2011), where Kirsten Dunst waits with the rest of the world for a rogue planet to smash into Earth. Seimetz keeps her vision more tightly focused and intimate. Jay Keitel’s brooding cinematography sometimes dips into the surreal, as when a character catches the bug and the screen flashes colors of the spectrum. At other times, “She Dies Tomorrow” zeroes in on the tiny bits of beauty we never notice, like Jane’s microbes, or the bubbles in a wine glass that suddenly resemble a murmuration of birds.
What would you do if you knew today would be your last? Run home to your loved ones, like Jane’s initially disbelieving doctor (Josh Lucas)? Get the breakup over with, like Jason and Susan’s friends Tilly (Jennifer Kim) and Brian (Tunde Adebimpe)? Just hang out by the pool, like Sky (Michelle Rodriguez) and Erin (Olivia Taylor Dudley)? The hardest moments of Seimetz’s parable occur offscreen, and involve Jason and Susan’s daughter (Madison Calderon). Youth, remember, is a belief in immortality, and to take that away seems especially cruel.
There are the occasional heavy-handed touches: those blasts of Mozart’s Requiem in the early scenes. (On the other hand, what would you play as exit music?) But “She Dies Tomorrow” takes a preposterous premise — if one that stares us in the face every day — and keeps on the right, eerie side of dramatizing it. That the movie arrives at this particular time of slow panic, when a disease has driven us into postures of denial and acceptance and when a country feels as if it’s about to fly off the rails, isn’t Amy Seimetz’s fault.
On the other hand, maybe she knew. Maybe we all know. Underneath the artful dread of “She Dies Tomorrow” lie the Five Remembrances of Buddhism, which include the lines “There is no way to escape death. All that is dear to me and everything I love are of the nature of change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.” Or as Amy says in the bleak light of this singular movie’s dawn, “It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s not OK.”
SHE DIES TOMORROW
Written and directed by Amy Seimetz. Starring Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Chris Messina, Katie Aselton. Available on cable systems and on demand services. 84 minutes. R (language, some sexual references, drug use, bloody images)