Coherence, an impressive first feature from writer/director James Ward Byrkit, begins with eight long-time friends gathering for a dinner party on the night a comet is passing near the Earth. What follows is a fascinating, maddening mix of The Twilight Zone, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Came from Outer Space, The X-Files, the fiction of Philip K. Dick, as well as discussions of quantum decoherence and Schrödinger’s cat. The characters become progressively freaked out and destabilized over the course of a long dark night, and since we never know anymore than they do, it’s like we’re in their shoes. I’ve seen the film twice in two days and I’m still struggling to sort it out, which makes the inside of my head feel like an M. C. Escher drawing wrapped in a Möbius strip. Coherence has stayed with me, and I think it even got into my dreams a couple of nights ago. I love this kind of stuff, especially when it’s done as well as this is. But if you want a story to “make sense” or be resolved by the end, then Coherence is probably not for you. Watching Coherence I was reminded of two films by Shane Carruth, Primer (2004) and Upstream Color (2013). In a post I wrote last year about Upstream Color, I said that both films were “perplexing and demanding, but quite rewarding if you open yourself to them.” This holds true for Coherence as well.
The film opens with a tight over-the-shoulder shot of a woman (we later find out this is Em) driving at night. We don’t see her face, only her right shoulder and a part of her head. The image we see of her goes slightly soft while the dashboard remains in focus. She’s talking on a cell phone to a man, but what he says is unclear, difficult to decipher. She realizes she’s lost the call, then hears a sharp sound and sees with a start that the screen of her phone is now laced with cracks. There’s a struggle for coherence, both visually and aurally, right from the start.
The dinner party is at the home of Mike (Nicholas Brendon) and his wife Lee (Lorene Scafaria), located in the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose, California. Their guests are Em (Emily Foxler) and her boyfriend Kevin (Maury Sterling), Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Gracen), and late arrivals Amir (Alex Manugian) and his date Laurie (Lauren Maher). We slowly get a sense of the various connections and tensions between these people.
The performances are excellent throughout, and the actors play it absolutely straight as they deal with panic and paranoia. The increasingly insane situation is all the more disturbing because of the conviction they bring to their roles. It’s nuts, but it feels real. The cast was unfamiliar to me with the exception of Nicholas Brendon, who played Xander Harris for seven seasons (1997-2003) on Joss Whedon’s great television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a joke in Coherence is that Brendon’s character Mike is an actor who had been on a popular TV series, Roswell – which was a real show, though Brendon was not on it).
Seeds are planted early that provide clues (possibly) to events that follow. At the dinner table the passing comet – “Miller’s Comet” – is mentioned. Em relates that after a comet passed over Finland in 1923, many residents didn’t know who they were, couldn’t find their homes, and that a woman called police to say that the man in her house was not her husband. She claimed she was certain of this because the day before she had killed her real husband, and this guy wasn’t him. Mike jokes that now she can kill him again. It turns out that the screen of everyone’s cell phone is cracked like Em’s, and that no one has cell service, nor is there Internet service. Then the power goes out. They look outside and see the entire neighborhood is dark, except for one house a few blocks down the road.
Events become increasingly strange and disturbing. Has the comet somehow created at least two sets of the same people and houses? As they struggle to make sense of what’s happening, cause and effect become totally scrambled. For these eight people it’s the worst acid trip ever as they try to figure out who are the “visitors,” them or us?
Coherence is proof that filmmakers don’t need a big budget to do terrific work. The film was reportedly shot in chronological sequence in basically a single location with a cast of eight, one or two cameras and two sound guys. The actors were given limited information about what would happen next, resulting in performances and interactions that feel natural and authentic, almost like we’re watching a documentary. James Ward Byrkit has created a small gem, thought-provoking and challenging. I’m really looking forward to what he does next. – Ted Hicks
Coherence opens in limited release in New York City and Los Angeles this Friday, June 20, with additional theatrical dates to follow. It will also be available for instant streaming and HD downloads beginning August 5, 2014.