Amy thinks she’s dying tomorrow… and it’s contagious.
I suspect She Dies Tomorrow will be one of those movies where we will all put a very personal spin on its message. Perhaps the hypersomniacs among us will decide it’s about the contagiousness of yawning, the historians about tulip mania or the dancing plague. In my more desperate moments as I got my children ready to go back to school, I wondered if it was about nits.
Written and directed by Amy Seimetz, the screenplay actually came out of her experiences around telling other people about her anxieties.
Still, I’ll admit I went for the coronavirus angle first. I’ve managed to find a coronavirus angle in most movies I’ve watched this summer, apart from The Epic Of Everest which was made in 1924 so didn’t even have the decency to coincide with Spanish Flu.
Part weedling cult, part social contagion, the conviction that someone is going to die the next day is spreading like a virus from person to person, though it’s as much about how these characters respond as what is being transmitted.
Whatever it means to you, this is a weird and unconventional watch, often gripping but at the very last moment unsatisfying, like a sneeze that builds but never comes. Let’s face it, it can be quite dull listening to people’s innermost thoughts, including one’s own. There’s a thin line between self-awareness and self-absorption.
Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) is the first to succumb, though we find out later she caught it from her boyfriend Craig who caught it from the pizza man.
An already troubled young woman, vulnerable and susceptible, it’s obvious why Amy is part of the first wave. Her belief in her own demise is so absolute she googles urns and becomes obsessed with having herself made into a leather jacket upon death, a way of ensuring she is, finally, useful. (Unable to utter her request to a leather worker into whose shop she wanders she asks him if he could make a jacket out of “a mammal”.)
Her friend Jane (Jane Adams) thinks she’s doing this for attention. Until Jane too is infected, turning up at her immaculate sister-in-law Susan’s birthday party in her pyjamas, hair all over the place.
Jane doesn’t seem like the kind of woman likely to succumb, but maybe the virus is mutating to infect people the outside world expects to shake it off. Anxiety can sneak into every thought and action of the most seemingly together person, after all. Dying tomorrow starts off as one of those weird ideas that we all laugh at and forget about, only to realise later that the people we would mock it with are already true believers.
We spend most time with Jane and Amy; both are impressive in their almost believable acceptance of approaching death. (Does my description of them as almost believable mark me out as a doubter who would then become one of its most dogmatic victims? Probably.)
Kate Lyn Sheil as Amy reminded me of Dakota Johnson, with added deadpanning. Adams’ Jane is serene, transformed and accepting. Most infected people act as if they’ve just discovered the meaning of life, the universe and everything, like a teen after their first joint, though their responses to knowledge of their impending doom varies.
The already troubled ones are pursued by their pasts, and unresolved business. The more chilled accept their fate. (It’s a terrific cast; the very premise takes “playing it straight” to new levels.)
Essentially this is a whole epidemic (emotional, mental, physical, any of those) squashed into 85 minutes, with all the stages people go through speeded up: denial, anger, acceptance, fear, grief, and my favourite, the petty point-scoring of Tilly after she is infected at Susan’s birthday party.
Not for Tilly the tranquil yet melancholy stoicism of Jane, Amy’s retreat back into addiction, or Jason and Susan’s sad yet accepting knowledge that their daughter too will die, cuddling her while she sleeps like a scene from an off-kilter version of Thirtysomething.
Tilly (a joyous Jennifer Kim) stands out as she seizes the freedom of finally being able to say what she thinks, griping at her boyfriend Brian (Tunde Adebimpe) that he didn’t turn up to her birthday party even though his dad had a stroke. I can only admire a character who keeps that up as the end of the world looms, using her approaching personal doomsday as a deadline by which these things must be said. Score-settling as bucket list is refreshing and probably quite common.
The isolation is well done, that intensifying of every experience when you can no longer see the boundaries of what is normal (because your friends-and-family control group around you has also succumbed).
Its humour is desolate even as they all sit among the detritus of a well-funded life: “I love trees, I’m gonna miss trees” says Sky (Michelle Rodriguez), lounging by their pool while Jane, who they’ve just met, swims across in her blood-soaked pjs. “I’m gonna miss trees too,” agrees housemate Erin (Olivia Taylor Dudley), while they ponder why a neighbour would be mowing their lawn on that, of all days.
The infection is speeding up too. Craig has two days to live; Amy catches it from him and only gets a day. Erin and Sky discuss the fate of all the ants, apparently they will die too (how quickly: five minutes? Is it related to bodyweight?)
Viruses are everywhere here, signposts or red herrings. Jane’s brother Jason (Chris Messina) and his glamorous, dolphin-fucking obsessed wife Susan (Katie Aselton) live in a lovely home with large modern paintings of viruses on the walls. Their kitchen light fitting looks like one of those models labs like making to show us what something invisible to the naked eye really looks like, all criss-crossing sticks.
She Dies Tomorrow reminded me stylistically of The Dead Don’t Die, and Greener Grass. The former is about the evils of capitalism and the latter about identity, but the mundanity of their existences, even as weird shit starts to happen, is the same. Poor Craig, Amy’s ex – after he meets his end, all she can come up with to describe their time together is “nice”.
The time until “tomorrow” goes slowly, the victims excited, scared but intrigued, like waiting for a comet to hit the planet, or your 30th birthday in Logan’s Run. There’s a dreaminess as the infection takes hold. Everyone retreats into their own heads, which becomes nightmarish: sudden flashes of blue and red light, the dizzying, emotional highs of an operatic score which suddenly just… stops. It’s jarring and I found the ending is extremely unsatisfying.
But then I’m quite practical and like loose ends tied up. Ambiguity makes me anxious.
Blue Finch Film Releasing presents She Dies Tomorrow on Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player and digital download
Watch the She Dies Tomorrow trailer now: