Like the better episodes of The Twilight Zone, Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Shane Carruth’s Primer before it, indie sci-fi Coherence is a brilliantly staged and sharply written mindscrew of a movie that left me equal parts giddy, chilled and bewildered. It’s easily one of the most thought-provoking and deeply engrossing cinematic experiences of the year – not to mention a highly auspicious debut for writer-director James Ward Byrkit.
It’s hard to talk about Coherence without spoiling its many fascinating twists and turns, but I’ll do my best. Our protagonists are eight friends who come together for a dinner party on the night of an astronomical anomaly – “Miller’s Comet,” which is passing closer to Earth than ones recorded in the past. As Coherence opens, hints of the comet’s influence can be seen in broken phone screens and disrupted signals.
The one common thread linking all eight characters is perhaps their normality. There’s dancer Em (Emily Foxler), who’s quietly unhappy and in an ostensibly healthy relationship with Kevin (Maury Sterling). Kevin’s “vixen-y” ex-girlfriend Laurie (Lauren Maher) is also in attendance with her new hook-up Amir (Alex Manugian), which is Em is none too pleased about, especially when Kevin adds to the tension by recounting a funny anecdote about her. Actor Mike (Nicholas Brendon), who had a lead role on Roswell (not really – his protagonist Joe was invented for this movie) is dating the meek Lee (Lorene Scafaria), and he spends a lot of time seething that one of their friends who watched every episode doesn’t remember him. Finally, there’s the tall, hot-tempered Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Gracen), who comments on the bad energy emanating from a “door to nowhere” in the house and complains about the lack of feng shui.
All of these characters are so realistic that you will have encountered variations on each and every one of them at some point. Though they wear taut smiles and revel in the refined nature of their gathering, none of them are particularly thrilled with how their lives have turned out. All of them have goals that didn’t pan out, plans that never came to fruition, and that feeling of discontent hangs heavy above their heads.
When the lights go out, the dinner party takes a turn for the strange, as the characters see a house lit up down the street and some wander outside to investigate, only to discover that the comet has caused their reality to splinter in fascinating and deeply unsettling ways. To say any more about the complex moral dilemmas that emerge as a result of their discovery would be to disrespect the greatest truth about Coherence -the less you know, the better. Suffice to say, you’ll want to go home afterwards and immediately draw out the story in Primer-style levels of detail in an attempt to make sense of it all.
Coherence didn’t have a screenplay – Byrkit shot the film consecutively over five nights, giving the actors cards specific to their characters each morning that explained what stories they needed to work into the scenes and what their character’s motivations were. As strange as that may sound, the film benefits from it, with the on-the-fly production adding a strong sense of naturalism. The acting is terrific all around as well, with each player turning in a nuanced and emotive performance. In particular, Foxler, the closest thing that Coherence has to a lead, impresses by keeping Em relatable even as she embarks down a very dark path.
I need to probably see Coherence three or four more times before I can say for certain that I understand it completely. Byrkit’s story is unmistakably ambitious, and there’s no questioning that he follows through on his premise’s mind-bending promise, but many of the answers to Coherence‘s mysteries are cached like easter eggs throughout its length. Part of what’s oh so enjoyable about going in blind is trying to piece together what’s coming next from the few clues you can uncover early on.
When Coherence gets going, it has a hypnotic narrative pull in how it blends heady scientific ideas with familiar societal norms. I’ve never heard Schrödinger’s cat explained so convincingly in a movie – and Coherence goes a step further when one of the party guests reflexively jokes, “I’m allergic.” No matter how complex the science gets in Coherence, you never lose sight of the fact that real people with distinct personalities are at its heart. One of Byrkit’s many triumphs in this movie is letting the audience see things solely from the biased, partially obscured viewpoints of its characters. That approach pays off in spades as the tension builds and Coherence goes to dark, unnerving and scarily plausible places.
In anchoring his sci-fi head-scratcher with something as common as a casual social gathering, Byrkit forces his characters to face themselves and others head-on, questioning the paths their lives have taken. The answers Coherence provides about the true nature of free will, fate and self-perception are disturbing and uncommonly thorough without ever feeling overly intellectual or stodgy. And unlike Primer, Coherence has an intimate, personal bent – you actually care about the characters, feel their pain and ache for every terrible decision they fall into making. In my opinion, that may make Coherence the better of the pair.
Coherence makes you think and feel in equal measure. It’s a movie that refuses to be pinned down or pigeon-holed, preferring instead to blaze its own trail. As Byrkit’s debut film, it’s mightily impressive and may well signal the arrival of a bold new talent. And as cinema, it’s complex and chilling in the spirit of the best mind-benders. Don’t pass it up.
Coherence is a smart, spooky and supremely satisfying mind-bender that proves lo-fi doesn't have to mean low ambition.