When you’re in this line of work, you’ll occasionally write a piece about how a film you’ve just seen connects to The Events of The Day, and sometimes it’s a bit of a stretch. And sometimes, the night before SXSW is cancelled because of the coronavirus, you go see a pre-festival screening of a movie about certain death, passed from one person to another via physical contact and shared paranoia. You don’t exactly have to be Greil Marcus to draw the lines here, folks.
The film in question is Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow, which was slated to premiere last Saturday at the SXSW Film Festival. Once that festival (and thus that screening) was cancelled, the film’s publicist informed those of us who had already seen it that we could run reviews starting Friday. It’s hard to know what to do in a situation like that; while you want to acknowledge (and, in this case, praise) the work of the filmmakers, reviewing a film that literally no one can see, intended to run alongside an event that no longer exists, feels like a very “tree falls in the woods” proposition.
Yet here I am, not because I recommend the film – though I do, highly, though I’m not sure what good a recommendation does when there’s literally no way to see it? No, I wanted to at least share a few thoughts, because frankly, it’s bizarre and a touch unnerving that what will most likely be my final press screening for quite some time was for… this particular film.
And to be clear, it’s not just the aforementioned central premise, summarized on the film’s IMDb page as “Amy thinks she’s dying tomorrow… and it’s contagious” – although that is certainly disconcerting. Amy is played by Kate Lyn Sheil, and no, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that she shares a given name with the film’s writer/director. It seems, initially, a story of depression and potential self-harm, and it’s the kind of film that knows those feelings inside and out: how the mind fractures, how you’ll fixate on one song, how nothing is more frightening than being left alone with one’s own thoughts.
This element has also gathered some unexpected cultural currency in the… week and half (Jesus, is that possible, that’s all the time that’s passed?) since our press screening. Amy doesn’t leave her home because she can’t, because her depression won’t let her, so she rattles around among the half-unpacked boxes, despairing and crying, and I think we can all relate to that at the moment. Hopefully not too much; She Dies Tomorrow contains one of the bleakest images I’ve seen in a movie recently, of a character swilling wine while browsing online for cremation urns.
“I. Am. Going. To. Die. Tomorrow,” she tells Jane (Jane Adams), clearly the go-to friend in these scenarios, who responds as you’re supposed to in a situation like that, with admonishments like “Don’t do anything you might regret.” Jane only realizes that Amy’s not threatening suicide, but explaining what she believes to be an inflexible certainty, when Jane begins to feel it too. And that section, as this feeling moves from Jane and then on to others, is the reason I absolutely cannot get She Dies Tomorrow out of my head – because it’s not about killing other people with your actions, but about passing along (in whatever way you might), a sense of fear, of doom, of certainty. Once you get an idea like that in your head, it’s impossible to get out.
I don’t know when you’ll get to see She Dies Tomorrow, which came into SXSW seeking theatrical distribution; let’s be honest, at this point, I’m not sure when any of us are going to get to see much of anything. (Programming note: expect more reviews of VOD releases and retrospectives of things you can stream!) The entire theatrical distribution and exhibition thing was already at a precarious bending point, an industry held aloft solely by giant event movies that moviegoers decided must be seen on the big screen, and everything else could wait. Now all of those events are being kicked down the road, not that there might be theaters to play them in anyway; we could look back on this as the historical moment when that bend turned into a break.
But I hope you get to see it, and I hope you get to see it in a theater, for a number of reasons: to marvel at how Seimetz uses bursts of light, color, sound, and imagery to capture Amy’s fractured mindstate; how the sound design fills the auditorium with downright apolcalyptic rumbles; how an audience of strangers will seek permission from each other to giggle at the horrifyingly dark comedy of its back half. (Like many of the bleakest movies, it’s also very funny.)
More than anything, I hope we’re able to eventually hold it up as an artifact, a snapshot of a moment quite unlike any we’ve seen. The films that best encapsulate their moment often do so altogether accidentally, and that’s certainly the case here; the echoes of what was happening outside the theater door (and predictions of what would happen) are shocking, but unintended. Yet none of that blunts the picture’s considerable force. And who knows, maybe one day we’ll look back on it as a reminder of how quickly people can give in to despair, and how – for just the briefest of moments – we managed not to.