July 8 2014 05:12 PM

James Ward Byrkit's sci-fi movie is clever, tenacious and deeply unsettling

Emily Foxler has to figure some stuff out.

Imagine a water molecule that never stops splitting. Endless variations of the original careen through space until, after some time, one version becomes indistinguishable from the other. James Ward Byrkit's Coherence creates the same scenario but with a cast of characters, beginning as a quasi-The Big Chill for the hipster set before splintering into a hundred different realities and personalities crashing against each other.

It might not seem like it at first, but Coherence works deftly within the science-fiction genre where time remains a fluid concept. Whether it's a dystopian or utopian vision, the future is always now, metaphorically or otherwise. But what if our understanding of temporality (and story) broke down and timelines began to co-exist side-by-side, exposed by a celestial event that comes along once in a lifetime? Coherence dares to jump down such a rabbit hole.

Stylistically innocuous, the film opens like so many indies do these days, with hand-held camera shots that should come with a prescription for Dramamine. Em (Emily Foxler) drives toward a dinner party where she plans to meet her husband Kevin (Maury Sterling) and some of their old friends. There's reference to a comet flying overheard as she talks with her significant other on the phone. When the line goes dead, overwhelmed by static, we get a first inclination that this rare phenomenon might have an impact on tonight's plans. 

Upon arriving at the home of Mike (Nicholas Brendon) and Lee (Lorene Scafaria), Em settles in for an awkward get-together that features one of Kevin's sultry ex-girlfriends. Hints of anxiety and guilt start to boil to the surface, but the hang-out session is almost immediately interrupted by a strange power outage. When two members of Em's group venture into the suburban darkness to approach the only house in the neighborhood with electricity, Byrkit starts to play puppet master. What follows can only be described as a growing avalanche of panic, uncertainty and mystery.

Talking about Coherence's plot threatens to ruin many of its surprises and virtues. So, we'll sway left of specifics and head right to the tonal strangeness and serpentine script. From the onset, Byrkit displays a keenness for directionality and movement, sending characters to all reaches of the frame and still retaining a level of clarity. However, this rationality should always be questioned, as Em quickly figures out when certain discrepancies in her friends' actions raise red flags as to their true identities. 

In that sense, Byrkit's film owes a lot to the seamless menace created in both versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. People's words and actions are decoys for unsettling motivations, their skin simply a mask to instill trust in others. Even when Em starts to piece together the specifics of what's happening, we're not even sure we can trust her perspective. Too many chess moves have already been made to distinguish hero from villain. 

Coherence walks a fine line that few films would dare, playing with overlapping narratives in clever ways that eventually cement into a sandbox of infinite possibility. Byrkit exploits each character's hidden emotions and past traumas to populate the film with tense interactions. At first, it all feels like a cosmic joke, happenstance jacked up to level 10. But it's all by design. "Is anything really random tonight?" one character asks, playing the role of sage when they should be worried about their doppelganger waiting in the wings. 

Tenacious worry turns into desperation, revealing what Em and her friends are capable of when threatened with other versions of their precious lives. Coherence—which opens Friday, July 11, at Reading Gaslamp Cinemas—then becomes a Shakespearean contest of deception to see who can outfox the others. Night may eventually progress to morning, but the appearance of sunlight does nothing to sway the endless anxiety of people willing and able to destroy reality in order to preserve the fantasy.


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