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An ingenious micro-budget science-fiction nerve-jangler which takes place entirely at a suburban dinner party, Coherence is a testament to the power of smart ideas and strong ensemble acting over expensive visual pyrotechnics. It marks the feature debut of James Ward Byrkit, a longtime storyboard artist for director Gore Verbinski. Byrkit worked on the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and co-wrote the Johnny Depp-voiced animated western Rango, but here he takes a sideways step into ultra-indie territory, cleverly building an unsettling psycho-thriller about cosmic chaos into a talk-heavy domestic-set film.
The action is mostly confined to a single location, which also happens to be Byrkit’s living room. Most of the cast are friends of the director, seasoned unknowns who have worked on TV dramas including Homeland, CSI and Mad Men. One of them, Lorene Scafaria, wrote and directed the Steve Carrell rom-com Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Already collecting multiple prizes on the fantasy film festival circuit, Coherence is being released in select theaters on June 20, with strong potential to become a cult word-of-mouth hit.
The setup has the deceptively familiar feel of a classic stage play. A group of eight friends gather for dinner on the edge of an unnamed U.S. city. Marital tensions and sexual secrets sizzle just below the surface, but relationship drama is soon overshadowed by astrological weirdness when a comet passes close to Earth, shutting down power supplies and phone connections. Electricity is soon restored inside the house, but outside the world remains in darkness. It slowly becomes clear that the fabric of reality has been radically remixed by the comet’s arrival. We are definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Too much plot detail risks giving away spoilers here, but Byrkit milks maximum suspense from theoretical physics ideas about “quantum decoherence,” notably the increasingly fashionable concept of parallel universes co-existing simultaneously, populated by multiple versions of ourselves. What would happen if the borders between those alternate realities began to blur? If we ran into happier, smarter version of ourselves, might we even resort to killing them and taking their place?
Byrkit cites The Twilight Zone as a key influence on Coherence. Shane Carruth‘s cerebral mind-bender Primer and Mike Cahill‘s lo-fi astrological fable Another Earth are obvious reference points too. Connoisseurs of vintage sci-fi might also cite Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the original Solaris and the cult British space shocker Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (aka Doppelganger).
Making a virtue of its limited resources, Coherence is shot in a hand-held, claustrophobic, focus-blurring style that manages to look both glossy and raw. Kristin Ohrn Dyrud‘s minimal score, full of drones and moans, amplifies the sense of creeping dread. Shooting in chronological sequence, Byrkit only gave his cast limited information about the narrative loops and swerves ahead, encouraging a semi-improvised naturalism that feels authentically tense. The audience viewpoint is best embodied by Em, played by Swedish-born beauty Emily Baldoni, the outsider of the group who eventually resorts to extreme measures in order to survive.
Coherence demands patience and concentration from the viewer, plus leaps of faith that some will find implausible. The overly neat manner in which the characters figure out their warped new reality, via a quantum physics textbook that somebody just happens to bring to the party, is a stagey contrivance. The ending also feels a little sensationalized, degenerating too quickly into violence, blackmail and unwittingly comic confessions of infidelity: “Even if there are a million different realities, I have slept with your wife in every one of them!”
But whatever its minor imperfections, Coherence is a thought-provoking and well-crafted experiment in zero-budget sci-fi. It perhaps works best as a cautionary allegory about the paths we choose in life, and the alternative selves we sometimes dream of becoming. Long after its tortuous plot twists fade, this dark journey through the looking glass will continue to haunt you.
Production companies: Bellanova Films, Ugly Duckling Films
Starring: Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Alex Manugian, Nicholas Brendon, Lorene Scafaria, Elizabeth Gracen, Hugo Armstrong, Lauren Maher
Director: James Ward Byrkit
Screenwriter: James Ward Byrkit, from a story by Byrkit and Alex Manugian
Producer: Lene Bausager
Cinematographers: Nic Sadler, Arlene Muller
Editor: Lance Pereira
Music: Kristin Ohrn Dyrud
Sales company: Independent Film Company
No rating, 89 minutes
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