AT THE MOVIES
If Today Were Your Last Day
By Noah Gittell
For a first-time filmmaker, it’s better to show promise than perfection. A spectacular debut only increases the chances of a sophomore slump, whereas a tantalizing but flawed film shows the potential for growth. As such, I expect actor-turned-director Amy Seimetz to quickly get an opportunity to make something better than “She Dies Tomorrow”, her arresting but undercooked first feature. It’s a compelling film that demonstrates a preternatural mastery of the form, even if her ideas are more engaging than the follow-through.
It’s a rare feat of tone, bringing a meditative, contemplative style to the psychological horror genre. Kate Lyn Sheil plays Amy, who, when we meet her, is spending her last night alive alone in her new house. For reasons at first unclear, she is convinced she will die tomorrow, which concerns her friend Jane (Jane Adams) enough that she pops over for a visit. Jane chalks it up to a relapse — Amy is a recovering alcoholic — but when she gets home, she is struck by the same unmistakable dread: She’s going to die tomorrow. She tells her brother Jason (Chris Messina) and his wife Susan (Katie Aselton), and pretty soon, they… Well, you get the idea.
It’s a neat concept that could be used to explore any number of genres: horror, thriller, even domestic drama. But Seimetz is more interested in observing the disparate ways people would react to the sudden news of their impending demise. Amy spends her last hours drinking and lingering on regrets over failed relationships. Jason and his wife find their relationship tested by the news.
The trouble is we never get to spend enough time with any of the characters — the film clocks in at a tight 84 minutes — so their actions don’t amount to much. Seimetz’s goal is to explore our relationship to our own morality, but she consistently undercuts her aims by focusing more on mood than character.
But what a mood it is. Seimetz proves a master of expressionism, using light and color abstractly to sing the inner song of characters who have chosen to quiet their hearts. Even before the virus came around, the protagonists were all trapped, asleep, or not really alive in the first place. Amy is an addict. Jane lives a lonely existence making art in her basement. Jason and Susan pretend to live a perfect life, but something is clearly missing, as they can only summon two friends to Susan’s birthday party.
What Seimetz lacks in characterization, she makes up for in design, giving each of their homes a distinct visual style, and when the time comes for them to face reality, she summons a reservoir of creativity — flashing lights and intense close-ups — to evoke their confrontation with the unknown.
For those struggling with isolation in these strange times, “She Dies Tomorrow” may strike a deep chord.
It’s just a shame that the cast isn’t given the chance to make an impact. Sheil, so affecting in the 2016 documentary “Kate Plays Christine,” effectively portrays the throbbing sorrow of depression, but, like everyone else, she spends most of the film in a daze, which robs us of the chance to really get to know her. “She Dies Tomorrow” isn’t much for drama, relationships, or even tension, all of which would have been easily achievable given the ingredients. Instead, Seimetz seems to draw away from her characters’ specificity to try to conjure the universal. She never achieves this ambitious goal, but it’s a thrill to watch her try.
“She Dies Tomorrow” is now available to stream.