Movie critics like to throw around terms like "mind bending," but few films are really so disorienting that they inspire and reward multiple viewings just to figure out what the hell happened. I would place Primer and Memento on that list. Coherence, the debut feature from writer-director James Ward Byrkit, earns a spot there, too.
Unseen on Vermont screens, but currently available on various streaming services, Coherence is worth a look for the sheer contrast between the audacity of its conceit and the minimalism of its means. It was shot over a few nights with eight actors, improvised dialogue and a handheld anti-aesthetic, yet it endeavors to broach some of the Big Questions about how we become the people we are (or think we are).
Four couples meet for a dinner party as a comet cleaves the sky overhead. When their cellphone screens and a wine glass mysteriously shatter, they laugh nervously. When the power goes out, they grab glowsticks and venture over to a neighbor's house where lights still blaze. There they make the first in a series of deeply unsettling discoveries.
The scenario recalls the classic "Twilight Zone" episode "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," in which a group of McCarthy-era suburbanites isolated by a power outage discovers that the monsters they fear are actually ... each other. Byrkit has updated the paranoia for a time in which well-read people easily bandy about terms such as "quantum uncertainty" and "Schrödinger's cat," and alternate-reality scenarios are common currency. His characters even reference a previous film that drew on such watered-down multiverse theories, the rom com Sliding Doors.
In short, the concepts at play in Coherence are far from original, and the film's exposition of them far from elegant. Yet Byrkit devises a plot that keeps us guessing. He gives the well-worn tropes new life by avoiding fantastical excess, keeping the focus on how the strange phenomena affect the relationships among his characters.
Protagonist Em (Emily Baldoni) is already uncomfortable at the gathering before the weirdness starts. She's facing a big choice about her relationship with her boyfriend (Maury Sterling), and it doesn't help when his glamorous ex (Lauren Maher) shows up. Mike (Nicholas Brendon of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), the party's host, is a recovering alcoholic who worries that stress will release his inner drunk. The evening's events push both characters toward a breaking point.
Coherence often feels like a found-footage movie where the cameraman isn't acknowledged, or a bizarre stage play — even the incisive editing takes the form of sudden blackouts. The improvised conversations are chaotic and full of overtalking, which serves the film well at the beginning — mundane chatter lulling us into a sense of security — but undermines it toward the end, when that same chatter merely distracts us from moments of potential dread and awe. While Coherence takes the superficial form of a horror movie, it's ultimately too talky to be scary.
That makes a kind of meta-sense, given that we live in a culture where virtually nothing weird can happen without somebody comparing it to a specific episode of "The Twilight Zone" or "The X-Files." Why freak out when you can explain and analyze? And Coherence is sure to inspire viewer analysis — lots of it. The film invites multiple viewings by doing ingenious tricks with our assumptions about where — and who — the characters are at any given point. Whether reassembling its pieces into a coherent whole will inspire any deeper thoughts is the question.