Shot on a shoestring ($50,000) budget over 5 days with predominantly improvised dialogue, James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence is one of the most impressive debut features to come out of the contemporary American Indie landscape, an absolute triumph of modern Science Fiction film-making heavily influenced by the Mumblecore tradition. Centering on a dinner party that takes place during the occurrence of an astronomical anomaly, Coherence is a wonderful lo-fi, sci-fi flick, and a nice counterpoint to Shane Carruth’s fantastic Primer, attacking Science Fiction on a far more narrative level rather than hinging on the more technical side of the genre.
The first third focuses almost exclusively on a (somewhat) tense dinner party between four couples, with some fantastic claustrophobic cinematography and some hilariously biting dialogue. Around the half hour mark, with all the cell towers out and a few weird occurrences (phone screens breaking etc.) the power cuts out, and a few of the guests go to investigate the only house on the street that seems to have power. This kicks the plot into full swing, expanding, obfuscating, and solving narrative threads with each passing minute. It feels like an extended Twilight Zone episode in a good way; there’s more than enough here to sustain this film’s slightly-less-than 90 minute runtime and Byrkit expertly sends us hurtling towards a number of loose threads and red herrings. The plot, although somewhat bizarre and arguably overly complex, is solid, maintaining intrigue throughout the remainder of the feature before reaching a pleasing, if somewhat heavy-handed, conclusion.
All of the performances are spectacular, in fact it is the performances, above all, that make this movie. Forgiving the odd poorly delivered line, it’s clear that Byrkit has employed an extremely talented group of actors with no weak links. Of particular note are Nicholas Brendan (Xander in the Buffy, The Vampire Slayer TV series), Emily Baldoni, and Hugo Armstrong, who absolutely blew me away in his previous effort Ok, Good. They do their best to make every scene drip with authenticity and, for the most part, succeed. Their best work definitely comes in the film’s first third that plays out a lot more like a Swanberg-driven mumblecore flick than it does Sci-Fi.
The first time I saw Coherence, I was unaware that most of the dialogue was improvised, it just seemed too natural to be natural in the film’s bizarre setting. The flow of speech was so realistic that the improvised elements felt completely seamless and innocuous, seemingly meaningless conversations are interesting and lively. The characterization we get, especially in the opening moments, is solid, building an immersive and believeable universe that doesn’t reflect contemporary reality, it exists within it. What makes this more impressive is that many of these scenes of improvisation had to cohere to a strict Science Fiction plotline. In this sense, the film isn’t the traditional Mumblecore outing of a bunch of millenials talking about their feelings and interpersonal relationships – every scene must serve a purpose in the bigger picture and exchanges have to be tight to maintain realism while driving the plot along without rupturing holes in the film’s logic. This becomes more apparent when loose threads that are introduced into the film that feel like throwaway lines become plot points, expanding upon themselves sometimes an hour after they first occurred. Most scripted Science Fiction films can’t even pull this off proficiently, let alone ones with paired down, improvised dialogue. On this point alone Coherence is worthy of praise.
There are moments where it has a tendency to reach beyond it’s means, or introduce elements and lines that totally fail to land, but on a whole it’s a pretty spectacular effort from a new and interesting voice in the contemporary American indie landscape. Oddly enough, James Ward Byrkit isn’t new to the film industry, having penned the script for Rango and working as a storyboard artist on the first three Pirates of the Carribeans. Thankfully, he doesn’t push for the mainstream audiences these films target, demonstrating a high level of versatility and talent. Let’s hope we get some more unique little films from him in the near future.
There’s not much more to say that won’t give away the film’s finer elements so I’ll leave it at this – if you’re into Science Fiction or modern American Independent cinema in general, go and check out this film. While it’s unfortunate when gems like this miss out on theatrical release in Australia, it’s fantastic that Coherence has finally found its way to DVD and Blu-Ray and kudos should be given to Pinnacle Films for picking up the domestic rights. James Ward Byrkit is an interesting voice and will be one to watch in the future – if he keeps making stuff this good it won’t be long before he’s sucked up into the studio system, directing an expansive blockbuster on a far higher budget like Gareth Edwards before him. Sign me up.
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