By Leah Greenblatt
July 30, 2020 at 07:55 PM EDT
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Memes and videos go viral; so, as we've been so forcefully reminded in 2020, do deadly flus. But can an idea be contagious, literally? That’s the question posed by writer-director Amy Seimetz (The Girlfriend Experience) in She Dies Tomorrow, though the movie is ultimately less interested in answers than delirious atmosphere — a sort of spiraling, slow-burn psychedelic dread eerily suited to These Times.

“There is no tomorrow for me,” Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) tells her friend Jane (Jane Adams) emphatically. And she means it; nothing — not her youth or her health or even the neat little bungalow she’s just bought — can convince her that she has more than another day to live. Jane, as most friends would, tries to talk her down; it must be some kind of hysterical episode or the wine she’s been chugging like a parched camel, sprawled between the moving boxes still stacked in her living room.

Until Jane herself suddenly becomes infected, convinced that her death date has also been set — and that she has to share the burden of that knowledge with someone she loves. And so, as surely as any airborne microbe, Amy’s prophecy begins to spread. As it does, Seimetz — perhaps best known as an actress in both far-out indies (the 2013 festival sensation Upstream Color) and more mainstream offerings (Alien: Covenant, Pet Sematary) — lets her visual world, too, go wild. Colors surge and spin, texture clouds the frame, orchestral music rolls in like a rising tide then cuts dead.

Jay Keitel/NEON

Everyone takes to the news in their own way: Amy, in a sequined caftan and smeared mascara, lurches from room to room like a mad housewife, alternately giddy, devastated, and preternaturally calm. Jane, frantic in pajamas, decides she has to share the news with her brother (Chris Messina), already busy hosting a dinner party for his wife (Legion’s Katie Aselton) and their friends (Jennifer Kim and Tunde Adebimpe), a new-ish couple who seem happy enough until mortality suddenly puts a fresh frame on their relationship.

Mumblecore veteran Sheil, with her Raphaelite curtain of hair and almost affectless voice, can be an opaque heroine, and the plot, as far as there is one, feels halting at first, the dialogue choppy and unreal. But as Adams and Messina settle into their roles, the movie’s messy humanity meets its existential panic and the story takes hold, finding strange resonance and even a kind of absurdist comedy in its end times.

Die Tomorrow's dazzling, disorienting visual style may earn Seimetz comparisons to Upstream and its creator, her former fiancé and collaborator Shane Carruth. Though Dies, with its restive female energy and heady intimations of doom, feels more like the third entry in a sort of indie-apocalypse triptych that could include two other recent films, Josephine Decker's Madeleine's Madeleine and Julia Hart's Fast Color. Even saying that, though, feels like a disservice to a movie as wildly unsettling and original as this one: a snapshot glimpse into the abyss — or just an early jump on our new reality. B+

She Dies Tomorrow hits select theaters and drive-ins on July 31, and comes to VOD Aug. 7.

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