To hear the line “I’ve lost you” in the early moments of Coherence is to recognize the all-too-familiar refrain of anyone who’s experienced phone interference. James Ward Byrkit’s feature directorial debut cannily manages to take that simple phrase and infuse it with retroactive regret, but only after 88 minutes of low-budget, high-concept brain-scrambling have ensued.
You’d be forgiven for mistaking the film’s first 15 minutes for those of the latest mumblecore outing, given the jostling, handheld camerawork and a largely Caucasian cast populating a Bay Area dinner party, each largely defined by region-appropriate careers (the bit player, the ballet dancer, the herbal specialist, the Skype executive, and so on). We’re privy to the naturally shaggy conversations of four couples – tentative lovers Emily (Foxler) and Kevin (Sterling), hosts Mike (Brendon) and Lee (Scafaria), married couple Hugh (Armstrong) and Beth (Gracen), and Amir (Manugian) and Laurie (Maher), who happens to be Kevin’s latest ex.
The only suggestion that Something Else is afoot is the recurring mention of a nearby comet and the peculiar mishaps for which its passing has been blamed (the abrupt cracking of cell phone screens, for instance). Soon enough, the lights go out, and two of the group’s members decide to venture down the street to the only other house in the neighborhood that still has power.
To describe much more wouldn’t be cricket, but suffice it to say that Byrkit (who shares a story credit with Manugian) has cooked up a parlor game that Rod Serling might have loved. Using minimal special effects and maximum speculation on behalf of the characters, Coherence grounds a mounting sense of paranoia among a set of credibly flawed relationships before doling out its eerie revelations with care. In contrast to the jargon-loving experts of Shane Carruth’s similarly heady Primer, the ostensible intelligence of our leads shouldn’t necessarily be taken for granted; these are people who are as likely to name-check Sliding Doors in the face of cosmic bewilderment as Schrödinger’s cat.
With the action confined to one house on one night, the screenplay (whose story was thoroughly structured while the dialogue was largely improvised) hints at more than it ever shows, with editor Lance Pereira’s frequent cuts to black only contributing to the ominously elusive proceedings. If anything, repeat viewings have proven more likely to further complicate matters than reveal answers, but then that sense of unwieldiness adds its own charm as the plot grows too twisted for even its participants to fully grasp the implications of their behavior.
However, the true feat of Byrkit’s puzzle is its sneaky emotional undercurrent, eventually personified by Foxler’s performance of equal tenacity and self-doubt. (With her blonde locks, it’s not hard to see her as the equivalent of Brit Marling in a version of Another Earth that actually turns out to be interesting.) Much like last year’s underappreciated +1 (Plus One), Coherence presents a far-fetched premise at the outset, only to slyly smuggle in some remarkably relatable matters of the heart along the way.