Review: Coherence (Ward Byrkit, 2013)

Still from the movie Coherence

I’ve long ago given up on the thrill of scaring myself with horror flicks or roller coasters; it just doesn’t seem fun anymore. So it was not with the purpose of frightening myself that I sat in our carpeted hallway one evening, waiting for my child to be born, to watch this movie my husband had long anticipated. Most people will laugh at me for calling Coherence a scary film. As a matter of fact, it’s billeted as a “sci-fi thriller.” Still, I maintain that fear is a multi-faceted thing. The movie industry has invented a plethora of methods to terrify it audiences, from masked slashers to serial murderers to various types of monsters to aliens to supernatural phenomena. Within each of these sub-genres there are sub-sub-genres. But there is another type of film, which can’t quite be categorized as “horror,” that induces a subtler and more sinister type of fear. These movies, whether intentionally or not, are cynical and disturbing and downright creepy. Memento may have been one of these, and I declare that Coherence is another.

The film is set in what looks like a typical upper middle class home in a typical California suburb. A group of old friends, comprised of four sets of couples, gather for a dinner party on an evening when a once-in-a-century comet is passing close to earth. One of the friends, Emily (Emily Baldoni), relates to the others what she had heard on the news earlier, that the last time the comet came it had caused a series of strange phenomena. Her friends laugh and tease her until the power goes out and cell phone service is disrupted. Looking outside, they spot a lone house down the street that still has light. One of the guests needs to use the phone, so two emissaries head to the house only to report back to the others that the house they visited looks exactly like this house, and, more chillingly, the people in there, also gathered for a dinner party, look exactly like them. (This is about when my eyes started to tear up, and my husband asked me whether I wanted to discontinue watching. We persisted, though I refused to let him out of my sight until some time the next day.)

Perhaps the only obviously recognizable cast member is Nicholas Brendon, who played Xander Harris on WB’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer a few decades (!) ago. First-time director James Ward Byrkit assembled his cast somewhat unconventionally–they’re all friends of his with backgrounds in improvisational acting. In fact, the entire movie is improvised. According to interviews with Byrkit, he handed each of his actors a general plot outline and a description of their characters and motivations and just began shooting their interactions. The result does have an improvisational flavor to it. Even before I had known this background, I remarked to my husband that there is something a little off about the dialogue. Not that it doesn’t sound authentic, but some of it feels extraneous and occasionally a tad overdone, which I’ve observed happens often in improv as the actors feel themselves into their characters. Still, the performances are mostly convincing.

The plot, too, is quite creative, even if the science seems a bit sketchy (or at least sketched over). There’s enough material and realism here to give viewers considerable food for thought, though not quite enough to launch explanatory websites as did Primer, to which this film is often compared. If nothing else, Coherence is proof that compelling movies can be made with next to no money. Indeed, it’s one of the most original films I’ve seen lately.