The twisty sci-fi and philosophy tinged mystery Coherence talks a pretty good game, and once it gets going it becomes highly entertaining and almost delightfully disorienting. It just takes perhaps a bit too long to get to the good stuff.
The set up is a simple one: 8 southern California types get together for a dinner party on a night when a comet is set to pass overhead. They all have various personal and professional connections to one another. Some are more accommodating towards others, while some just want to get through the night without an argument. Some are brilliant thinkers, some completely aloof (and in one case, drug addled), but they all appear friendly.
The first thirty minutes of James Ward Byrkit’s feature film directorial debut features a lot of faux-Pinteresque dialogue and banter that should be in service of setting up the characters, but feels more like a spinning of wheels. The film will get vastly more interesting as it goes (despite a decidedly low tech approach to filmmaking that never looks more that a single setting drama), but once it becomes apparent that the character beats aren’t as interesting as the story beats, it makes the opening a bit more frustrating.
That opening section does, however, establish some great performances that are helped along by Byrkit’s firm grasp on the material. There’s an improvisational quality that comes through that works to the film’s advantage, though oddly not in that opening. That doesn’t mean the characters are uninteresting or unsympathetic, though, especially Emily Foxler as the closest thing the film has to a lead, playing a woman more than a little annoyed by the fact that her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend is showing up with a douchy date. Also worth noting is the work of Hugo Armstrong, as the initially quiet brains of the group.
What makes it hard to really talk about Coherence in depth without spoiling it is the actual plot. Once the comet passes by, it knocks out all cell phones and the internet, and briefly leaves the guests without electricity. They step outside to notice that a house nearby still has power, only that the house is hosting the exact same dinner party with the exact same guests, only everything appears somewhat off.
The film then becomes a pretty elaborate and engaging shell game. Are these people dead? Are they ghosts? Is this a time loop? Were they inadvertently drugged? Was there an actual connection to the comet? Is the other home friendly or evil? How can they exist in the same time and space and what happens if these worlds meet? It’s heavily influenced by decoherence theory and Schrodinger’s Cat, with both getting constantly name dropped and re-explained, but the philosophy is never used to disguise the fact that Byrkit really just want to make a solid B-movie with a brain.
The constant stream of watching people trying to one-up and outsmart themselves leads to a pleasing feeling that the audience might actually know more about the situation than the characters do, which is a smart approach for such purposefully convoluted material. Bits involving missing books, different coloured glow sticks and band-aids, and even a guy who gets the bright idea that he’s going to blackmail his doppelganger, are great and subtle touches that establish the film firmly as a character study first, and a thriller second.
All that really matters is that a film like this has a good payoff that makes sense, and the denouement to this one is a real doozy. It’s a bit rough out of the gate, but it will stick with you and allow you to puzzle over it long after it ends.