Film Review: Coherence

Cracking good “Twilight Zone” riff turns a yuppie dinner party into an inside-out exercise in paranoia and relationship physics after a passing comet knocks out the power, and maybe more besides.

Last year, both It’s a Disaster and This Is the End created bottle episodes out of taking a houseful of self-centered jerks and watching what happened when the world came to an end outside their front door. Both worked as feature-length exercises in schadenfreude. For the more mysterious and probing Coherence, writer-director James Ward Byrkit goes with a dinner party instead of a passive-aggressive brunch or celebrity-watching party as the thing that brings his yuppies with issues together on the night when civilization disappears. The disaster in this instance is a passing comet that first knocks out everybody’s phones and the Internet, and then the power.

There are eight people in the dinner party, but the film is focused on Em (Emily Foxler) and her creeping dread. A dancer with a nervous streak, she’s first concerned by her phone’s screen spontaneously cracking as she drives to the dinner party. Once at her friends Lee (Lorene Scafaria) and Mike’s (Nicholas Brendon) place, there’s a flurry of anxiety over the appearance of Em’s boyfriend Kevin’s (Maury Sterling) drama-magnet ex-girlfriend Laurie (Lauren Maher). When dinner finally starts, Em starts talking about the comet, telling a story about a supposedly similar event in Finland during the 1920s after which people started acting…strange. It turns out somebody else at the table experienced a cracked phone screen too. Then the lights go out. And people start acting…strange.

At first, Coherence gets its juice from plucking the strings of tension stretched taut between the eight friends, partners and former lovers. The red wine might be flowing and the lighting might be soothingly buttery—everything about the film’s setting and look is meant to evoke The Beautiful Lives of L.A.’s Creatives—but raw issues of character keep blurting into the open. A couple of people’s infidelities, another’s alcoholism, the tension-stoking anxiety of an obnoxious New Ager—it’s all grist for the mill once the power cuts out and the guests begin hearing strange noises outside and decide to go investigate.

Although his film is in part about the bad choices individuals make under duress, Byrkit has more on his mind than self-involved people leaping into me-first mode the second that disaster strikes. It would be spoiling the fun (and Coherence is nothing if not puzzling fun) to get too far into what transpires in and outside the house. But the old quantum-physics thought experiment of Schrodinger’s Cat gets liberally tossed around, and there will be more than a few arguments about what the mystifying conclusion means. Byrkit’s habit of cutting to black at unexpected moments further shuffles an already fractured structure that loops back in on itself at multiple times, shifting the ground underneath the characters’ feet as well as the audience’s.

Most intriguingly, this thoughtful film leaves open the notion that maybe disaster hasn’t struck. Byrkit deftly interweaves the incestuously tangled character melodrama with the larger mysteries that crop up with increasing speed after the first 20 minutes, using the former to feed the latter. He also tweaks the focus from an external threat to an internal one, while adding in a clever Rubik’s Cube plot device that undermines the certainty of almost anything one sees. This makes for a deft science-fiction mystery that manages to lift heavily from “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” the classic “Twilight Zone” moral tale about the contagion of paranoia, without being constrained by it.

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