An incursion into existential horror spins into butter in Amy Seimetz’s second feature film.
Nine years ago I came upon a little-seen indie that played at the IFC called Sun Don’t Shine. I knew nothing about the actors (Kate Lyn Shiel and Kentucker Audley) or its director, the also-actress Amy Seimetz. What I do recall is experiencing something close to a noir film disguised in a road movie based in Florida, with the barest thread of a plot — a couple on the run from a crime that continues to stalk them. It was solid while ethereal, with a clear homage to Terrence Malick, which can be a good thing and a bad thing. In her debut movie, Seimetz managed to make what would have been a more brutal story feel almost weightless with fragile performances by its two leads. I liked it and hoped to see more from Seimetz.
Late last year I heard some buzz that Seimetz had released her follow-up, She Dies Tomorrow, and that audiences were polarized. Some praised its atmosphere filled with fear of the unknowable, others were scratching their heads. I held out until I was done with festivals, which was by then the tail end of the year. Walking in, I knew nothing other than the title and that Seimetz was working with a slightly larger cast, many who have worked with her as actors or on Sun Don’t Shine.
What I encountered was a film that announced itself rather shrilly, with Mozart’s Lacrimosa blaring at me with the force of a slap in the face. It is a piece that recurs in several intervals. The heroine of the piece, Amy (Shiel) mopes around languorously, sometimes in dread, sometimes in a fugue state of pitch-black depression. She seems caught in a vortex that she cannot escape. She is absolutely convinced that she will die, tomorrow. Her friend Jane (the always reliable Jane Adams) comes to her succor, to no avail. Then we focus on Jane, suddenly rapt and moody, enveloped in dark colors and perpetually in pajamas. When she crashes her sister-in-law’s birthday party — a party in which the rather outré topic of dolphin sex is the theme of the evening — she virtually stops the party in a manner that would make Debbie Downer seethe with depression and a “Wah-waah.”
It’s safe to say that once Jane leaves, everyone else starts to act as though they’re in the final, downbeat scenes of the most existential nightmare. Are all of these characters, people we barely know, also afflicted with the malady of impending death? When we return to Amy, she is still alive. And then, the movie decides to turn its head away from its J-Horror inclinations in which a terror leaps from person to person, and stops short.
She Dies Tomorrow felt — and still comes to mind — as though in concept, it would have made for a rather surreal entry into nihilism. As it is, Seimetz never develops her concept, or her characters, and lets them carry their non-personas into teary resolutions drenched in regret and ill-earned maudlin. Fear of the unknown, of what lies in the doors into the afterlife, is real and as old as time. It is why the Egyptians made sure to create death ceremonies of their dearly departed. You could even argue that this is why we as a modern society favor exercise and living green, prolong our stay and delay the inevitable.
However, Seimetz, coming out of a horror remake that made her more widely known as an actress, leaves it stillborn. So much could have been developed had she cared more for the terror that knowing your time comes with an exact expiration date brings. Movies like The Ring (both the Japanese and the American versions) took that fear and ran with it. This movie, sadly, deflated before it even had a chance.