One of the great joys in life for film buffs is finding those little known gems that flew under the radar. Not necessarily cult classics (though they have the potential), which require a devoted following that pushes them into the zeitgeist usually far after the movies’ original releases; I’m talking about the deep cuts, well made movies that exist on the fringe. Coherence (2013) is one such film and now, thanks to magic of online streaming, it’s available to just about everyone.
I was lucky enough to see Coherence back in 2014 at a film festival in Manchester, which was fortunate because it meant that I knew nearly nothing about the film beforehand; this is particularly good film to approach, “cold” for reasons I’ll explain later. Of course, if you really want to experience it as I did, stop reading now and go watch it, then come back and read the rest of this. I’ll wait. The film centers around eight friends who come together for a dinner party in an unnamed Californian suburb. Mike (Nicholas Brendon – yes, the one from Buffy), an actor, and Lee (Lorene Scafaria), his businesswoman partner, are joined by fellow couples Kevin (Maury Sterling) and Em (Emily Baldoni, credited as Emily Foxler). We get the impression that Em is a relative new addition to the group as Kevin’s most recent and longest lasting girlfriend, and his friends seem glad he’s “settled down”. Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) a lawyer and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Gracen), the requisite hippy friend, round off the initial cast at the start of the film. Things are complicated by eventual arrival of Amir (Alex Manugian, also Coherence’s co-writer) who brings along Laurie (Lauren Maher) as his plus one. Laurie it turns out used to date Kevin before he and Em got together. While the film’s McGuffin may be the party that brings the group together, the true driving force behind the rest of the plot is Miller’s comet that happens to be passing overhead during the group’s time together.
As stated in the film, the notable comet is passing much closer to earth than it has in the past and it brings with it a series of increasingly odd events. First, Em’s phone shatters in her hand while she’s speaking on it. This is followed by all mobile phone service dropping, before Lee (who works for Skype) notices that all of the internet is down before finally the power goes out. Only one house in the neighbourhood seems to have power, and Hugh, whose brother is an astrophysicist and told him to contact him should anything weird start to happen, decides that he should go and ask to use their phone. And that’s when things start to get really interesting.
To give away anymore of the plot would be to spoil some of Coherence’s most delicious surprises, but it will suffice to say that the film goes into some pretty unexpected and cerebral territory. Coherence’s trailer is also not a good indicator of exactly what type of content the film really is. It sets the film up as what seems to be a garden variety horror film, cherry picking lines such as, “We’re not from this house”, and playing up a home invasion angle. When I would say Coherence sits more comfortably in the Sci-Fi/thriller category. This is not to assert the notion that there aren’t levels of fear accompanying Coherence, but once the impetus for the horror is revealed the film transforms into existentially horrific musing on singular identity and our place in the universe and all its dimensions. This film contains, in my opinion, the best dive into serious paranoia since John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), a film that can in many ways be considered a spiritual forbearer to Coherence.
What’s truly incredible about this film though is how much it is able to say with so little. The entire film was shot over five days in the director, James Ward Byrkit’s own home on a miniscule budget of $50,000, and in addition to this the script was mostly improvised. Given this production process, the fact the creators were able to fashion a, for lack of a better term, coherent finished product is impressive in itself. The fact that they produced one that is as slick and polished as Coherence turns out to be is astounding.
There are some technical glitches with the camerawork. On several occasions someone will abruptly move causing the camera to miss focus. But that can be chalked that up to the film’s improvised styling as much as its budgetary constraints, as almost all of the shots are hand held to allow the actors to move freely about the space. But these are minor niggles when confronted with the film’s probing tone. For a film that is set almost exclusively in one room, it manages to widen the viewer’s scope to the furthest reaches of our galaxy and other dimensions entirely. Coherence is a film totally invested in both its characters and the actors that portray them, and the environment around them is intelligently used to enhance the paranoia.
One of the best examples of this occurs early on in the film, which I’ll describe here due to its overall small impact on the course of the plot, but be forewarned it could be seen as a mild spoiler. The power has gone out in the house, and Hugh and Amir have left to check out the only house down the road with its power still on. When they return Hugh’s head is bloodied and Amir is holding tan-coloured lockbox. Hugh brushes off questions about his head saying he bumped it on the way back but after much discussion the group opens the box. Inside are a series of photos of everyone at the party and on the back are written individual numbers. It’s creepy stuff, but most disturbing is Amir’s photo, which he asserts was taken that night. He says he has just bought the sweater he’s wearing both at the party and in the photo earlier that day. Things get more upsetting when the group matches the background of the photo to one of the walls in the house. Somehow, someone got a photo of Amir, looking straight into the camera inside the very house they’ve all been in for the past few hours without anyone noticing. If you think you’ve got the answer, I promise you don’t. But it’s these kinds of moments where Byrkit has added mountains of intrigue and questioning that expand the reaches of the film past the room and group of people in it that makes this films so worthwhile.
Coherence for me will always be one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve happened across. It’s a little film that asks big questions and manages to resolve just about all of them. If it seems like I’m giving it high praise, it’s because I believe these are the types of films in which audiences everywhere should be investing. It’s been four years now since this film was released and most of the cast and crew haven’t made any sort of significant follow up. Take this as a one-off then, a film not unlike the comet it centers around, something that only crops up every now and then and is best viewed among friends with the lights off.
Coherence is available through Amazon Prime in US and on Netflix in the UK.