Director: James Ward Byrkit. Starring: Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon, Elizabeth Gracen, Hugh Armstrong, Alex Manugian, Lauren Maher, Lorene Scafaria. USA, 2013. IMDb: 7.2. My rating: 4/4. A metaphysical jazz-like improvisation about your inner self and your choices, wrapped into a relationship drama and disguised as a science fiction puzzle.
– And then, he took me to some lawyer bar.
– A lawyer bar?
– Yeah. A lawyer bar, kind of. I don’t know. Everybody there seemed like a lawyer. I felt like I was the only person without a tie.
– Well, maybe we should get you a tie for emergencies.
– Yeah, wardrobe emergencies.
(a dialogue between Em and Kevin)
It’s surprising to see how easily “Coherence” operates on a multitude of layers. Apparently, it’s a mature and delicate observation of what happens when a group of seemingly adult people and old friends gather for a dinner (check out great psychological theatre-like movies like “Carnage”, “Little White Lies”, “Perfect Strangers”). Then it easily turns into a science fiction thriller in a minimal setting (“Moon“, “Resolution“), that soon becomes quite disturbing. Even when you understand what is happening, the film won’t calm down and stop there, but bring its premise further and further. Thirdly, it’s a mind-bending puzzle that almost causes a brain fracture – lots of other sci-fi will seem like a relaxing stroll on a beach after the labyrinths you immerse in here. Like “Primer“, the film gained a huge notoriety between all kind of geeks because of its riddles. But while “Primer” was a film about nerds and brainiacs for nerds and brainiacs, “Coherence” could be easily appreciated by everybody.
But what makes me really praise it is that finally, all these things blend naturally to bring the viewer to a different kind of reflection – on almost metaphysical level. Whether to see it in that way, is your choice. “Coherence” works well on any of its layers, no matter how deep (or not deep) you want to go.
Few words about the plot. Old-time friends gather together for a dinner party. As a comet passes by in the sky, something strange starts to happen. “Coherence” is one of those cases when the less you know the better.
Probably not so many people have heard of James Ward Byrkit before seeing “Coherence”, but he is by no means a newbie to the cinema industry. Byrkit, who originally comes from a theater background, was a long-time collaborator of Gore Verbinski and worked as a storyboard artist in three movies of the “Pirates of the Carribean” franchise and a co-screenwriter for “Rango”. He has enough irony to admit though than while he enjoyed storyboarding for these huge movies, it was most importantly an occasion to find future connections and funding for something independent and experimental. The movie was shot during 5 days in a very minimal setting, Byrkit’s house, with $50,000 budget. That’s the independent spirit, man!
What is actually mind-bending – I mean, apart of the movie and the plot themselves – is that for such a minimal movie it took about a year of planning and fitting all the elements of the puzzle together. The idea originated from Byrkit’s intention to make something of bare bones (here steps in his theater background). Purity and simplicity, no filming crew and no script (a 12-page draft was used instead), but still avoiding the usual stuff a bazillion of other relationship-based indie movies do. It goes without saying that very little money were involved.
Byrkit and Alex Manugian (who also did one of the main roles) created kind of maps, that would outline all the twists and characters collisions with logical explanations. And it worked – if you watch the movie several times, you notice new seemingly secondary details that suddenly start to make sense.
The casting choices were unusual too. Since there was no precise script, Byrkit decided to involve some of his friends or somebody he knew well enough to invite them staying in his house for shooting something experimental. None of the actors were told what they were actually filming, just having a card with general descriptions of the characters they were supposed to play or how they should behave in certain situations. None of them knew what other actors were told to portray. Sometimes it was like an exaggerated version of themselves (case of Nicholas Brendon, you have probably seen him in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer“).
How did it work out with the cast? Amazing chemistry. They look like old time friends or (ex-)lovers, who believe to know each other really well, but as we soon find out many dark sides of their relationships are yet to be revealed. An unexpected event helps to arise the tension and it’s a pure joy to watch how the characters develop. Byrkit admitted that one of inspirations was not really the sci-fi stuff (I really couldn’t keep calm watching all the interviewers asking him about ”Primer” since these movies share little in common), but something like “Carnage” (watch it, I beg you). The acting feels natural and it is indeed – all the reactions were spontaneous as nobody of the cast met each other before, that was another intentional casting decision made by Byrkit from the very beginning. “Coherence” is an ensemble movie and it’s hard to mark out anyone – really, all of them did an amazing job. They give you a feel of a smooth eight man orchestra suddenly going into a 90-minute long improvisation.
“Coherence” is a very balanced film. It doesn’t fall purely under any of the categories it playing with, but rather mixes them in equal proportions, thus being able to satisfy a very vast audience. And it really did – the film was widely recognized by both critics and public as one of the brightest events in independent cinema and science fiction of last decade. 88% on Rotten Tomatoes and several awards. The box office was about $100,000 due to a very limited release, but that’s understandable.
Regarding the deepest layer of the movie and the metaphysics… well, it feels very personal. It made a big impact on me as I watched it about three years ago, but still remember my impression clearly. It will make you think a lot about your life. It’s all about ethics, choices, the very basics of our existence. I only wish more people would see it on that level, not as a pure entertainment. Finally, we watch movies not only to entertain ourselves, don’t we? Still, you are to choose. But remember as well – you are what you choose (that would be also an informal description of the main premise).
Worth watching? One of the brightest indie cinema examples of the last decade, “Coherence” is a great example of which depths one can achieve with $50,000, a great idea and brilliant improvisation of the cast. The film works on all levels – it’s entertaining, thrilling and extremely smart. There’s much more than that though. It really makes you reconsider yourself.