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A stunning mindbender.
Coherence, a micro-budget sci-fi thriller from debut director James Ward Byrkit, is bound to cause debate among all those who view it. Nonetheless, one fact about this film that seems impossible to deny, even (or perhaps especially) by its detractors, is the delicious irony of its title. By definition, the word coherence is the ability to be easily understood, whereas the titular movie is anything but. This by no means should be seen as an argument against the film, but rather the opposite; it is Coherence's enigmatic and seemingly undecipherable narrative that makes it such an unforgettable and ultimately valuable viewing experience.
Viewers should begin this film with as little knowledge of the story as possible, but I will indulge in a few basic facts. It takes place over the course of one night, and is set almost entirely within the confines of a house in Los Angeles. Emily Baldoni (who shares her name with her character) leads the eight-person ensemble, which consists of a group of four couples who convene for what appears to be nothing more than a friendly dinner party. Within minutes, the interpersonal relationships between these couples begin to come to light through the most mundane of conversation. Their topic of discussion quickly turns to a comet that is currently passing over the United States, and the rumors of supernatural occurrences that these celestial events have caused in the past. These paranormal phenomena begin to occur at the party at an exponentially increasing rate and magnitude, turning the characters' notions of reality, personal identity, and relationships completely upside-down.
When discussing this film, comparisons will inevitably be drawn to other similarly heady (and similarly micro-budget) sci-fi ventures such as Primer and Another Earth. While both of those films manage to present an equally impressive amount of ideas given their financial restrictions, Coherence successfully avoids the former's frustratingly abstruse dialogue and the latter's occasional slips into pretension. Indeed, what makes the film one of the most successful of its niche is its ability to maintain a sense of groundedness. Even when the audience has very little idea what is happening (which is the majority of the movie), the film never feels frustrating because the characters share that sense of cluelessness. Their behavior is exactly what one would expect in such an unexpected situation, a strength owed both to Byrkit's wisely improvisational approach to directing and an impressive ensemble of actors who never lose their sense of relatability.
The true star of Coherence, however, is undoubtedly the mindbending and constantly engrossing screenplay. The narrative unfolds like a puzzle so complex that even the most attentive viewer will find it tough to put the myriad pieces together on a first watch, and even tougher to be certain that a complete solution exists. However, what's beautiful about this viewing experience is that the story's intricacy becomes increasingly evident throughout the film's 89-minute running time. The script abounds with small details and fleeting conversations that initially appear to be meaningless filler, but ultimately reappear in various forms that completely recontextualize their precedents.
Even more impressive is that as Byrkit's story explores and weaves its complex scientific ideas together, it still manages to achieve uniformly strong character development. The supernatural events incite the revelation of secrets and the gradual evolution and devolution of the various relationships that exist among the eightsome. Unlike many other films of its type, however, Coherence's characterizations do not feel like a tacked-on afterthought to a concept-heavy story; rather, the characters and the narrative feel organically linked, as though Byrkit created these individuals while simultaneously coming up with the intricate, conceptual narrative.
Coherence should be seen as a paradigm of microbudget filmmaking, presenting a sci-fi tale infinitely more interesting than the majority of its infinitely higher-budgeted and effects-heavy blockbuster contemporaries. Of course, many viewers of Coherence will be immediately put off by its blatantly low-budget feel and the naturalistic acting style. Others will likely be frustrated by the film's lack of an overt resolution and their inability to make much sense of the cerebral, metaphysical concepts that are presented. Nonetheless, (what I hope will be) the majority of the film's viewers will appreciate the astounding inventiveness of Byrkit's narrative and, like me, will have the immediate urge to rewatch it. Until then, whether there is a completely seamless solution to be found remains a mystery, but either way, trying to find it proves to be an exhilarating thrill.