CAPSULE: COHERENCE (2013)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: James Ward Byrkit

FEATURING: Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brenden, Elizabeth Gracen, Alex Manugian, Lauren Maher, Hugo Armstrong, Loreen Scafaria

PLOT: Eight old friends hold a dinner party on the night a comet is passing by the earth; an “astronomical anomaly” plunges them into a whirlpool of uncertainty and paranoia.

Still from Coherence (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s an excellent indie, and highly recommended to fans of “Twilight Zone”-styled intellectual chillers. It’s essentially a rationalist movie, however, and despite raising an uncanny hair or two, it’s not quite weird enough for this List.

COMMENTS: Talk about your film critic-specific problems: I’m struggling over whether I can conscientiously nominate Coherence for “best original screenplay” of the year when it was technically made without a script. The main “pro” argument is that, with eight actors, essentially one set and no extra money (or particular need) for special effects, Coherence generates a magnificently paranoid sci-fi effect entirely from its story. Director Byrkit and co-writer Alex Manugian (who also plays Amir) created the scenario as an outline, sketching out the major plot points they needed to hit, then let the actors improvise most of the dialogue and some of the situations. Acting-wise, the result is a believable naturalism: whether you like these slightly smug, upper-middle class characters or not, they do seem like a gang of old friends exchanging banter at a dinner party. Because of the unusual narrative structure, once the premise is established, the actors’ freedom to explore their characters and their interrelationships is no hindrance. Many of the plot developments here are arbitrary: not in a bad or sloppy way, but in a way that actually adds to the experience, increasing our disorientation and implying a puzzle where many different types of pieces might fit equally well. At a certain point in the story, the exact details of what happens to these characters become unimportant; the issue is the choices they make in order to survive the seemingly infinite night.

The script (such as it is) has two forgivable problems. The first is implausibility, not so much in the conceit (we go in to a movie like this expecting it to take liberties with reality) as in the action: sometimes, the characters need to do things that seems unlikely or unwise to kick-start the scenario. The second misgiving is the fact that at one or two points the script uses exposition like a cattle prod to force its characters to jump to (ultimately correct) conclusions more quickly than they would in “real” life. Given the difficulty of scripting believable responses to incredible events, and the fact that no movie would occur if the partiers just hunkered down and played canasta by candlelight while waiting for the comet to pass, we’ll give it a pass on those two points.

Coherence is performed by a cast of accomplished and professional, but unfamiliar, actors. Like a theatrical troupe that’s been working together for months on a stage show, they are at ease with one another and with the material. Everyone is good, and almost every cast member gets a turn to shine, although chief protagonist Emily Baldoni is the only performer here with breakout leading lady potential.

If the description above sounds a little vague, that’s one of the other film-critic specific problems with a movie like Coherence. Surprise is one of the movie’s chief pleasures, so you’ll just have to trust the reviewer when he or she says that it’s worth sticking around this dinner party to see where the conversation will take you. It starts a little slow but once the comet knocks all the lights out in the neighborhood except for one brightly lit house a couple of blocks away, things heat up quickly—by the midpoint of movie I was hooked. Anyone who likes puzzle movies such as ‘s Primer—a film that comes to mind because of its similar budget, minimalist aesthetic, and ingenuity in generating suspense through manipulation of speculative ideas—should find Coherence to be right up their alley. It’s exciting both as a chilling peek into the dark shadows of alternate realities, and as an example of how resourceful filmmakers can produce thrilling effects using nothing more expensive than their own brains.

Also, please see our interview with James Ward Byrkit.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Byrkit’s] premise has Buñuelian potential, but too often he settles for the shocks of a Twilight Zone episode.”–Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York (contemporaneous)

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