Quick Movie Reviews (She Dies Tomorrow & The Tax Collector)

She Dies Tomorrow

Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), the protagonist of She Dies Tomorrow, isn’t doing well. When we first we meet her, she seems fine enough — about as fine as any of us are in our current time of anxiety and confusion. She mucks around her half-empty house still piled with moving boxes, occasionally stopping to lie on the floor or run her hands over the furniture. She pours herself some wine, picks out a gown, puts it on, and sits down at her laptop to shop online for leather jackets (and, more curiously, cremation urns). It’s not until her friend Jane (Jane Adams) comes by and finds her blankly standing in her backyard holding a leaf blower that we realize how well Amy isn’t, as she greets her friend with a barely audible, “I was thinking… I could be made into a leather jacket.” With its claustrophobic spaces and free-floating fear, She Dies Tomorrow is built around an eerily prescient theme: existential dread as a thought virus. Amy is gripped by the unshakable belief that she will die tomorrow, and everyone who encounters her becomes similarly convinced after only a few seconds of exposure. One character describes the feeling: “It’s like when you’re in New York City… in the summer, when you look up and there’s air conditioners everywhere, and you just know, one of those is going to pop out and crash down on my head.” The pandemic here is purely emotional, at first Jane, then everyone she meets, is visited by a psychedelic onslaught of color, sound, and pummeling flashing light. It’s sort of like being abducted by aliens while high on LSD, and it turns all who see and hear it into hollow shells of doom.

This anxiety spreads inward from the margins of society to its more respectable center, passing from Amy, whose alcoholism has relapsed, to single, unemployed artist Jane to Jane’s more outwardly successful brother, Jason (Chris Messina), and sister-in-law, Susan (Katie Aselton). As the panic escalates, so does the violence of the character’s responses to it. There’s numerous ways in which She Dies Tomorrow can be seen as a prediction of our current virus-filled time, especially in a scene where Jane, clade in flannel pajamas with a bloody bandage wrapped around her wrist, tries to warn Jason, Susan, and their friends Brian (Tunde Adebimpe) and Tilly (Jennifer Kim) of what’s to come. Susan cracks a joke at Jane’s expense, and everyone laughs. Jane is right, and they don’t take her seriously at all. But then again, an unwillingness to face unpleasant truths has been apart of human nature long before stay-at-home orders came down. Considering director Amy Seimetz completed the film in time to submit it to the (cancelled) SXSW film festival in March, these parallels can be safely considered unintentional. It’s also a part of human nature to look for patterns where there are none, and these are exactly the types of responses Seimetz is exploring in her film — psychological reflexes from the deepest parts of our little animalistic brains, and how they reveal our true personalities and motivations. This vision of life in the face of impending death carries an apocalyptic weight similar, but not as deeply-felt, as that in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, and overlaid with an unseen supernatural threat that functions a bit like Invasion of the Body Snatchers mixed with It Follows.

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Image via NEON

She Dies Tomorrow isn’t really a horror movie in any conventional sense, though there is tension inherent in the inevitable rising of the sun the following morning. That being said, Seimetz also plays with bold stylistic touches often seen in horror movies, like dramatic, saturated flashes of colorful strobe lights and bombastic musical cues that abruptly cut off, at times to the point of being questionable. But while there are moments when the balloon cathartically pops, the predominant effect is for the anxiety to build to the point of numbness. The film, as a whole, touches on everything from the pain of experiencing a mental illness that no one around you understands to what it means to waste away your life. It often feels quite personal, even to the point that the screenplay can sometimes neglect to let the audience in on what’s happening, the film losing its way as it wanders through vast expanses of dread, feeling lost at times in search of an ending. But these are also lost characters, so its kind of a fit. They’re all grappling with a question that none of us will hopefully ever have to answer: If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you do? Filled with raw, vulnerable emotions and turbulent anxieties, She Dies Tomorrow is a film of messy humanity that thrives in its distinct, dreamy existentialism.

Grade: B

She Dies Tomorrow is available on VOD

The Tax Collector

The largely glaringly generic films of David Ayer have rarely shied away from their Sam Peckinpah aspirations: antiheroes, dirty work, violence in slo-mo. While The Tax Collector, which marks his return to an overfamiliar Los Angeles environment, does not suggest that Ayer has developed the moral contradictions of a macho auteur, it does imply though that he at least has some self-pity. Its depiction of a hardworking gangster as he deals with enemies on his turf and a crime boss named Wizard who only cares about the money could be viewed as an apology for Ayer’s critically drubbed excursions into micromanaged superhero franchising (Suicide Squad) and modernized Dungeons & Dragons fantasy (Bright). But this is the only ambiguity in a movie in which the villains commit ritual human sacrifice and the themes are literally spelled out in onscreen text at the beginning of the movie: “Love, Honor, Loyalty, Family.” Ayer appears to take this T-shirt slogan at face value, drawing out the crazy, radical revelation that criminals can have friends and children over the film’s action-less, leisurely first hour. The titular street tax collector, David (Bobby Soto), has a happy family, a nice house, and a sociopathic partner named Creeper (Shia LaBeouf). It’s worth noting that LaBeouf’s performance is about as close as this wobbly film has to a redeeming factor: His continuing Method commitment to mixed-bag macho material is commendable, and the fact that he got a full chest tattoo play a character who spends most of his screen time in a three-piece suit is kind of awesome.

Working for the largely unseen Wizard, David and Creeper eventually come up against Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin), a cartoonishly evil villain who has returned to Los Angeles after a long exile. He’s the one who performs the aforementioned human sacrifice with the help of a sexy female assassin in fully body paint during a sequence that is somehow not the most incoherent moment in the movie. Instead, that distinction belongs to a scene toward the end in which David experiences flashbacks of a jiu-jitsu class while bashing a man’s head in with a toilet tank lid. I know, that description might make The Tax Collector sound intriguingly bizarre. But, in actuality, it’s a tedious procedural about work-life balance in which suspense-free displays of hackneyed gangster signage are filled in with a few flashbacks that look like they were a cut from a much more exciting movie.

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Image via RLJE Films

There are a handful of gruesome images in the final half-hour that may even shock those viewers who haven’t yet given up or fallen asleep. Subtlety is in short supply. We know the bland David is the good gangster because other characters keep repeatedly saying so and because he has earned the respect of a member of the Bloods, which in Ayer’s book is about as badass as it gets. When the good guy vs. bad guy equation is this simple the idea that a character’s eventual turn to vengeance represents some kind of moral conflict is laughable. The truth is, The Tax Collector could have probably used some more cryptic, wasteful artistic principles along the lines of LaBeouf’s performance. Because for the most part, it’s just the dull kind of bad that evinces sloppy and confused direction more than spectacular failure: awkward character introductions, corny dialogue, pacing issues. As with a number of Ayer films, its best claim to authenticity is that it depicts its subjects exactly as they would want to be depicted — that is, above mere mortals in their camaraderie and indifference to violence. If one is going to make something this heapingly cliché though, they should at least try to bring some merit and-or solid execution to it. Putting all its reliance on pure triteness, The Tax Collector is a raw, uncut unimaginative crime thriller that spends most of its runtime flailing around on the screen only hoping to bump into something worth capturing.

Grade: C-

The Tax Collector is available on VOD

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