COHERENCE – Fantastic Fest Review
As a race, human beings rely on interpersonal communication as a means of not only relaying information to one another, but as a blanket of security during disastrous events. When our ability to reach out, be it through technology (cell phones, Skype) or the primitive passing of oral history breaks down, chaos ensues. These are just some of the ideas explored in Coherence, the first full-length feature from writer/director James Ward Byrkit. A minimalist, limited location sci-fi drama, Byrkit’s picture is both a confounding puzzle and an existential nightmare. And while it doesn’t all quite congeal into a consilient whole, the unsettling atmosphere created is more than admirable, as the questions Byrkit raises (while sometimes never offering answers) are enough to command rapt attention from his audience.
On the night that Miller’s comet is supposed to pass by Earth, we meet eight old friends at a somewhat tense dinner party. Lee (Lorene Scafaria) and Mike (Nicholas Brendon) are our hosts; an executive for Skype, and her supportive actor husband, hoping that his career hasn’t flamed out after a three season stint as a series regular on “Roswell”. Their guests consist of Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and Beth (Elizabeth Gracen); a slightly older couple where the husband is calm and rational, while his wife is a bit of a New Age butterfly, fretting over feng shui and offering up her own blend of herbal remedies and ketamine. Then there’s Emily (Emily Baldoni) and Kevin (Maury Sterling); a newly minted set who are trying to decide if a long business trip together is appropriate at this stage in their relationship. Finally there’s Amir (Alex Manugian), a fly-by-night bachelor whose latest lady is Laurie (Lauren Maher), an ex-lover of Kevin’s and object of lust for all of the men (and bane of existence for all of the women) in attendance.
Just as the party is beginning to peak in terms of antagonistic behavior (Laurie has a rather unique style of “catching up”), the power goes out, leaving the eight in the dark and without cell phones or Internet. Only one home on the block still has electricity, which both Hugh and Amir decide to investigate. Hugh wants to see if he can contact his brother, a scientist and teacher who requested notification should anything “strange” happen that night. Upon their return, Hugh is bleeding from the head and Amir is carrying a locked metal box. Inside is a ping pong paddle, as well as photos of everyone at the party, each numbered with red marker. As the group attempts to decipher just what is happening to them (Hugh claims to have seen a mirror image of their party at the other home), emotions boil over and dialogue within the group breaks down, leading to chaos.
Feeling like a cross between Shane Carruth’s Primer and any of Lars Von Trier’s intimate, handheld shot dramas, Coherence takes a bare bones premise and uses it to explore both quantum and theoretical physics. What begins as a seemingly ordinary piece of claustrophobic horror quickly descends into a discussion about the nature of diverging realities and the existence of alternate selves. This is dense, heady stuff, disseminated through both genre filmmaking and pop culture references (in what other movie will you find a character using the Gwyneth Paltrow starring rom-com Sliding Doors as a means to explain the thought exercise of Schrödinger’s cat?). Throughout its sparse, eighty minutes, Coherence speaks to communication; in this case, how we learn complex theories through non-traditional means.
In Dostoevsky’s “The Double”, a man comes apart mentally due to the sudden appearance of a literal facsimile of his self. Coherence uses a similar take on doppelgängers to explore how alternate fates can be meddled with and past mistakes can be confronted. The film also plays into a uniting theme found in this year’s crop of Fantastic Fest films: epiphany (and delusion) through intoxication. The administration of drugs calls everything witnessed by the audience into question, as alcohol and tranquilizers act as both lubricants and disablers for the characters, aiding in redirecting entire lives and to ponderous moments of self-refelction. Ingestion not only prompts poor decision making, but also prohibits certain members of the party from grappling with the mechanisms of converging realities. While not exactly a call to sobriety, Coherence is certainly a film that is best viewed completely sober.
Where Coherence might not entirely work as a narrative, it certainly succeeds as a complex examination of how information can be lost down the wormholes that appear in reality. In fact, Byrkit’s refusal to offer the audience any kind of true “end” (in the traditional sense of the word) shows a complete lack of interest in linear storytelling (“elliptical” is possibly the only way to describe the finale). Coherence is a film that demands repeat viewings in order to completely piece it together, as it’s an incredibly cerebral, if not altogether emotionally accessible, piece of small-scale science fiction.