“COHERENCE” (Fantastic Fest Movie Review)
Here’s a tip for slightly sadistic event planners seeking to liven up yet another humdrum middle-aged dinner party: Pencil the soirée in for the same night a reality-refracting, modern convenience-decimating, quantum physics-substantiating comet is set to pass overhead and watch the revelers plunge into a paradox-ridden puzzle of an evening they’ll never, ever forget.
Oh, and then send the makers of the brilliant consciousness-altering mindbender COHERENCE a royalty check. Fair is fair, and they got to it first.
It is actually quite challenging to delve into the delicious subtleties and conceptual twists of COHERENCE on even a surface level without spoiling a bit of the experience for future viewers—and an “experience” this film surely is—but the bare bones line up something like this: Four couples come together for a casual evening of semi-passive aggressive digs, (emotional) baggage handling, love triangle tension, and, sure, when time allows, warm repartee. It is, by design, all very insular and self-involved, and remains so until Miller’s Comet crashes the party, knocking out cell phone service, Internet connections, and save for one house two blocks down the street, all the lights in the neighborhood.
The subsequent expedition undertaken is wholly predictable. The unnerving revelation it holds, however, could not be more unexpected—the lit house is a perfect replica of the dwelling they just exited occupied by alternate versions of themselves.
Conveniently, the brother of one of the guests is a professor who not only specializes in esoteric quantum physics theories, but also just so happened to recently leave a book in his brother’s care laying out his ultra-applicable ideas on the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, summarized for the audience as follows:
“There’s a cat in a box that has, like, a fifty-fifty chance of living because there is a vial of poison that is also in the box. So regular physics would say it is one or the other—that the cat is either alive or dead. But [my brother] would argue that quantum physics says that both realities exist simultaneously and it is only when you open the box that they collapse into a single event.”
There is an exquisite, hilarious moment when the outsider femme fatale of the gang—a fiery, alluring Lauren Maher—answers this somewhat glib approach to explication by comparing the idea to the plot of the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle SLIDING DOORS (!), but regardless of touchstone preferences the upshot is that by making accidental contact with themselves, the theoretical “decoherence” that keeps these different “branches of reality” separate may have been undone, creating a potential existential threat and raising high-stakes, arcane questions that would have given Erwin Schrödinger an Excedrin headache.
Which dinner party will continue to exist once Miller’s Comet exits stage/cosmos right? How many alternates are there and how are they planning to survive? Has the house already been infiltrated by these other selves acting as covert agents?
Paranoia strikes deep, Stephen Stills once aptly noted, and into their hearts it does creep. “If we’re collapsing right now, I’m going to collapse on them,” party co-host Mike—Nicholas Brendon, AKA Xander from BUFFY—says. “I’m not going to wait for them to collapse on us. I’ll just go over there and kill them—half kidding.” He adds: “What if in that house I’m drinking? I mean, just think about that for a second. That’s a fucked up Michael. I’m not going to wait for a fucking drunk Mike to come over here and kill me and kill you and kill you and kill you…”
This comingling of fear and bravado doesn’t quite lead to action, however, and COHERENCE only truly kicks into overdrive when the beautiful and contemplative yet hitherto supremely insecure Emily (portrayed with a wonderful, naturalistic nuance by Emily Foxler) suddenly decides to take her destiny in her own hands via a series of dread-inducing scenes that drive us toward the disquieting conclusion.
COHERENCE is a tour de force of low-budget, self-contained, smart, stylish sci-fi/suspense filmmaking. It’s the perfect antidote, really, to the costly marriages of stupid and expansive we’ve been subjected to at multiplexes as of late, not to mention the closest celluloid approximation we’ll probably ever see to an amalgam of PRIMER, a less slapstick-y MULTIPLICITY, and THE ANNIVERSARY PARTY. (Gwyneth rears her head again!) Director James Ward Byrkit’s pacing and sense of how to communicate a fairly complex narrative without getting too lost in the bramble is remarkable, the performances are perfect, and the film’s foundational ideas continue to roil one’s brain long after the credits roll.
“This whole night we’ve been worried there might be some dark version of ourselves out there,” Mike says at one point. “What if we’re the dark versions?”