“I hate exposition,” writer/director/actress Amy Seimetz said in a 2013 interview with Filmmaker Magazine. This hatred is on display in her first full feature, “Sun Don’t Shine,” where a nightmarish scenario is presented with an almost blasé deadpan tone. “Sun Don’t Shine” thrusts us into the world of the two main characters, and we have to piece it together as we go. Seimetz’s latest feature, “She Dies Tomorrow,” also rejects exposition. Fragments are pieced together, interrupted by seemingly random insert shots of the sun setting, a molten ball of light, or microscopic cells swimming in a primordial sea. “She Dies Tomorrow” strikes a particularly haunting chord. By withholding exposition, Seimetz allows the premise to resonate in disturbing ways. Featuring a murderer’s row of talent—Kate Lyn Sheil, Kentucker Audley, Jane Adams, Chris Messina, Tunde Adebimpe, Jennifer Kim—”She Dies Tomorrow” has the feel of a horror film, and is sometimes scary, but it’s really an existential meditation on mortality.
The film starts with an extreme closeup of Kate Lyn Sheil’s ice-blue eyes, surrounded by smudged mascara, eyelashes wet with her tears, eyelashes stuck together, her eyes staring unblinkingly into … something hypnotic and frightening. The outside world does not exist. This opening image orients the viewer into the film’s modus operandi. Buckle your seatbelts. Sheil plays Amy, perhaps a clue to the film’s personal origins. Amy wanders through her house like a somnambulist, drinking profusely, pressing her body into the floorboards, the Mondo Boys’ cover of Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” on repeat on the turntable. Whatever is going on with her, she is deep into it at the film’s opening. Colored lights magically emanate from one of the empty rooms, and Sheil glides towards them, her face suffused with light as she stares directly into the camera, at what we do not know.
Other characters emerge. There’s Jane (Jane Adams), irritated from dealing with her friend Amy’s relapses. This time, though, Amy is practically in a fugue state. crawling through the dirt outside her house in a glittery gown, researching urns on the Internet, and whether or not local leather shops would make a jacket out of her skin when she’s gone. She informs Jane matter-of-factly “I’m going to die tomorrow” and Jane is, understandably, alarmed at this seemingly suicidal statement. But later, home alone, Jane is so overwhelmed by dread for no apparent reason she flees the house in her pajamas, and crashes a birthday party hosted by her brother Jason (Chris Messina). Amy’s awareness of imminent death is passed on to Jane. Jane, in turn, passes it on to Jason, his wife Susan (Katie Aselton), and their two guests (Tunde Adebimpe and Jennifer Kim).
Fear is present in every visual choice Seimetz makes: the camera placements are alarming, with sudden shifts of perspective. The camera moves to floor level or peeks through a partially closed door. The style is experimental yet coherent. “She Dies Tomorrow” jumps back and forth in time with no warning, skips from night to day and back, and although sometimes this technique is unnecessarily distracting and self-conscious, it adds to the feeling of disintegration, everything breaking down: norms, linear time, relationships.
The mood—with its unnameable sense of doom—is similar to Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia.” In that film, the rogue planet approaching the earth affects each character differently: some are prepared, others fall apart. The woman you think might crumble is actually the strongest, and vice versa. This plays out in “She Dies Tomorrow” too. Watch how each character looks into their own personal colored strobe. Everyone sees something different: it makes them grieve, or tremble, or say what they need to say immediately. Most of all, “She Dies Tomorrow” evokes the creepy way fear spreads, the way contagion works at the subterranean level, just like those swimming microbes seen through Jane’s microscope.
The acting is excellent but I’ll pull out Sheil for particular praise. I’ve admired her work for years. I first noticed her in Sophia Takal’s “Green” and was riveted by what she brought to the table, her confidence, ease, and depth. She works all the time, from “Sun Don’t Shine,” Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Philip” and “Queen of Earth,” the little-known terrific “The Heart Machine,” and Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine.” She goes deeper than most actresses go, often into inexplicable wordless states (as in “Green,” as in “She Dies Tomorrow”). When she gazes into the colored strobe in her house, Sheil shows how she can embrace the mystery of a moment with everything in her. Her face is lit up with transcendence and completely mad, simultaneously.
Unanswerable questions haunt “She Dies Tomorrow,” questions most people don’t want to look at. If you knew you would die tomorrow, what actions would you choose to take? What unfinished business would you address before the bell tolls? Things have a way of clarifying in the face of imminent death. In “She Dies Tomorrow,” there is no collective experience. People do not huddle together for comfort. Contagion brings isolation (this has eerie resonance with what the world is going through right now). When you face death, you face it alone. In Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, he faces this truth head on:
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns …
“She Dies Tomorrow” stares into the “undiscovered country” of dizzying colored strobe lights and makes you wonder what is out there, what comes next, why are we all so alone?