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She Dies Tomorrow

She Dies Tomorrow belongs to a film category that is sometimes referred to as "existential horror," which prioritizes atmosphere over characters and narrative and a creeping sense of dread over more tangible, jump-in-your-seat scares. There's nothing frightening about Amy Seimetz's film, but there is a pervasive sense of unease. It never develops into more than that, however, even though the premise is rich with potential. Seimetz achieves as much as she is able to with a limited budget: she has a troupe of good actors and she and cinematographer Jay Keitel make the most out of the juxtaposition of light (often enhanced with flashing colors) and shadow. In the end, however, it's all a rather hollow experience (as is too often the case with existential horror).

Throughout She Dies Tomorrow, Seimetz is trying to get at some compelling truths about the human experience - issues of mortality and isolation, in particular - but the cold, distant filmmaking style creates a barrier. It's impossible to break through the director's visually impressive but otherwise lifeless approach to find any characters worth caring about. The preeminence of pretentiousness scrubs away any possible emotional attachment to any of the people in this film.

The underlying concept is that the inevitability of death can be passed on like a contagion and, once infected, the victim cannot escape the Grim Reaper's touch. In addition, those with the "disease" are aware that they have it - they will die tomorrow. They don't deny the reality of their situation but must not only find a way to cope with it but decide how to spend their last hours. It's a variation of the oft-pondered philosophical question: If you have only 24 hours to live, what will you do with those precious last minutes?

Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) is the first one to be afflicted. At first, we think her extreme, seemingly suicidal behavior might be the result of the death of a boyfriend/husband/partner. She's drinking heavily and makes statements that cause her best friend, Jane (Jane Adams), considerable alarm. When Jane arrives to check up on Amy, she discovers that her friend is in a bad way. Soon after, Jane begins to act irrationally (hearing voices in the dark and running out to a party in her pajamas while leaving the door to her house wide open behind her - although this is likely more a conceit to get a particular camera shot than because it makes a narrative point). Amy in turn infects the four people at her sister-in-law's birthday party (where they're talking about the sex life of dolphins): her brother, Jason (Chris Messina); the birthday girl, Susan (Katie Aselton); and a couple of Jason and Susan's friends, Brian (Tunde Adebimpe) and Tilly (Jennifer Kim). The rest of the movie loosely follows the six main characters as they struggle with the realization that they are about to learn whether there's an afterlife. (This is not a riff on the Final Destination concept.)

Like most existential horror, She Dies Tomorrow is more experimental than fully formed. It's an exercise in determining what works to disorient and disturb viewers. To that end, there are plenty of unsettling shots. However, both the colored strobe and Mozart's "Lacrimosa" on the soundtrack are overused. And, while Seimetz appears unwilling to offer explanations for anything (relying instead on viewer interpretation, which will vary from person-to-person), the lack of any sort of delineation at times feels more like lazy screenwriting than a challenge to viewers. It's possible to provide characters with definition and develop some sort of narrative cohesion without spoon-feeding everything to an audience.

One can recognize the craft employed in making a movie and acknowledge that the director has likely given life to her vision without being favorably impacted. Despite the intriguing premise, this isn't a movie for mainstream horror fans. In fact, it's not for mainstream anything fans. Instead it's for those in the art-house crowd who applauded Darren Aronofsky's mother! and relished Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria remake. In short, She Dies Tomorrow will enthrall those who enjoy movies that wallow in artistic pretention rather than relying on old-fashioned storytelling.

© 2020 James Berardinelli

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