Imagine a child picking up a copy of Grimms' Fairy Tales only to discover that the last several pages of each story have been torn out. Are Hansel and Gretel turned into mincemeat by the evil witch? Is Snow White rented out by her height-challenged pals to Sealy for their mattress ads? Does Rapunzel yell, "Fuck it all!" and get a pixie cut?
That's how I felt about Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow, one of the more acclaimed films of the month. At a "pivotal" moment, Tomorrow's oft-annoying heroine, Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), who you might wish would kick the bucket today, looks out at a barren landscape, gazing this way and that, with smudged eyeliner. We follow her despondent glare as she continues looking but not seeing, and so on and so forth for close to two minutes. A very long two minutes. (One of her smudged eyes is also in the opening shot.)
Please note that there have been very few characters in my rather prolonged career as a film viewer, which started out with The Lady and the Tramp, who I couldn't bear being alone with for 120 seconds. Amy handily joins this rather elite grouping.
But just so you will not be swayed my relentless naysaying that will continue for the next few paragraphs, let me quote from Jeanette Catsoulis's rave in The New York Times: "At once a fascinating experiment and a claustrophobic puzzle . . . [this film] could be about many things or nothing at all."
Hmmm. I think Jeanette has covered all the bases, and in doing so, she has found a catchphrase that can be applied to all future books, films, and Kanye West tweets.
The first 22 minutes will especially make you think She Dies Tomorrow is about nothing at all. Recovering alcoholic Amy is in her new L.A. house. She calls a friend, Jane (Jane Adams), and mumbles into the phone:
"Can you come over?"
Jane: Are you speaking into the phone? I can barely hear you.
Neither can we.
After the call, Amy places a Mozart LP on her turntable ("Requiem in D Minor, K. 626," a piece the composer died before finishing). She’ll do this three more times. (Apparently, there is nada in this film that doesn’t bear relentless repetition.) At first, she sways to the Amadeus. She then embraces a wall before rubbing against it. Finished with the wall, walking barefoot, Amy pushes a cardboard board box aside so she can lie on a couch and start touching her wooden floor. Amy then lowers herself to the floor and caresses it. It's like being locked in the closet with your Aunt Tilly who's stoned. You remember when Tilly put on her spangled dress, went into the backyard, and stood on a ledge with a leaf blower. Well, Amy does that, too.
Critic Josh Larsen (Larsen on Film) explains: "[I]t could also be read as a metaphor for many things: despair in the face of death, yes, but also the all-consuming nature of depression, the contagiousness of anxiety, and the existential angst that loneliness can bring." Are those many things? Lots of overlapping there, Josh.
At this point Jane shows up, and Amy tells her that she wants to be made into a leather jacket and "I'm going to die tomorrow," which is apparently contagious because then Jane goes home, creates some of her amoebic art utilizing a microscope of sorts, and then traipses over to her sister-in-law's birthday in pajamas, where she interrupts a lengthy discussion about porpoises that rape. Jane switches topics to tell everyone that she is going to die tomorrow. Soon everyone realizes they will die tomorrow, too, except for some audience members who might feel they are perishing there and then.
Now, I'm not being exactly fair here. Jane Adams is an amazing actress, who can without breaking into a sweat imbue tragedy with comedy. When she's on screen, She Dies Tomorrow becomes a delightful black comedy. Her seduction of an emergency room doctor is a high point.
Yet for the most part, the film suffers from a hollow center, which if considered intentional, might be a possible critique of where we are now. Edward Albee wrote of the folks inhabiting his A Delicate Balance: "These people are teetering between being able to survive and being thrown into chaos." They are juggling self-deception, but unlike with Seimetz's creations, they are doing so with wit.
She Dies Tomorrow in the end is sort of a Rorschach test for critics and audiences alike. The picture gains power by being released during the current pandemic. If it had been released during the measles outbreak, oy! would you have gotten different reactions.
(After screening in drive-ins, Neon has released She Dies Tomorrow on Digital on Demand.)