Coherence (2013)

Directed by James Ward Byrkit

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Coherence is a low budget, contained sci-fi movie that relies on no special effects, just the effective performances of the actors who carry the story.  It’s about a moment in time, as a comet passes overhead, in which different dimensions coalesce or at least come into brief contact.  We follow a group of four couples, all friends of varying degrees, but there is enough recent intimacy as well as recent distance between the couples to produce adequate conflict.

The first fifteen minutes of this film is hyper-realistic.  We get to know these characters and the surface-level details of what makes them tick.  Then the lights go out, and the group investigates the power outage.  The entire block has gone dark, it seems, except for one house with power nearby.  So two of the men, Hugh and Amir, go and check it out. When they come back, Hugh has a cut above his eye, and they both seem somewhat disoriented.

It’s not long before the group figures out that the other house is them, the same house and the same group of people.  They’re only this quick to jump onboard with this realization (admittedly a big stretch) because Emily (Emily Baldoni) heard that the last time such a comet passed by the earth, it made people act very weird.  She’s already thinking something weird’s up before the rest of the group, but pretty soon they are all making plans to get ahead of the other ‘them.’

Now, I forget a lot of the plot details.  First they try to contact the other house, but then they themselves are contacted by… well, themselves.  Pretty soon there is an antagonistic feeling between them and the other them.  In one scene, four of them wander outside with their blue glowsticks only to come into contact with the other four of them holding red glowsticks.  It’s played as a frightening moment, and the first time I saw this movie, this moment freaked me out.

I love Coherence and the mystery around which the characters orbit.  The characters themselves are real enough to be believable, marked by their own egos, insecurities and chemistry with each other as a group.  They joked like people joke, talked over each other like people talk over each other, and the way they competed with the other dimensional versions of themselves seemed to symbolize the way friends tend to compete with each other, particularly at such a dinner party after having not seen each other for so long.

I’m sure you’ve been to a Thanksgiving meal or some other gathering with friends and family where there’s a little too much wine, a little too much ‘humble bragging,’ and though everyone is nice and friendly, there is a sharp undercurrent of trying to one up each other.  Coherence takes that idea even further.  These are characters who are proud, but they’re also wounded.  Emily is, what she would consider, a failed dancer.  Mike is a former tv actor whose career is going nowhere.  Two of the group had an affair together, and two others used to be in a long-term relationship.  Both of these past events come up as tempers flare.

So when you try to one up each other, you’re really trying to validate yourself, your own experiences and decisions.  My favorite part of Coherence is the way it makes this inner conflict an external conflict, making these character look at themselves (in other dimensions) as ‘other.’  There is not much of an attempt to make peace with each other.  Even if they do realize that all versions of them are trying to make it through the night safely, their actions come out through aggression.  They act with anger based from fear.

Mike is the most obvious example of this.  He tries to blackmail himself, a plan which his friend points out is incredibly stupid, so he finally decides not to.  But then later a note shows up under their door, and it’s a letter sent by another Mike to blackmail this Mike.

Though this movie has the appearance of a low budget horror film, there is not a lot of horror.  It’s more of a psychological thriller, putting you in the position to first try and understand what’s going on, but then we pretty quickly figure it out, and the question becomes ‘what would you do in their situation?’  It’s almost surprising how early into the movie we know what’s happening, even if we don’t completely know why.  Much of the story is about how the characters deal with this.  It’s not the ‘what’ as much as the ‘what now?’  Does that makes sense?  I hope it does.

This movie is very much like The One I Love, a movie I watched a week before which follows two characters encountering their doppelgängers.  In both movies, they see themselves as the enemy, but in The One I Love, we side with our protagonists as the enemy does come across as malicious.  By the end their sinister intent is made clear.

But in Coherence, I don’t think we’re ever meant to agree with the group’s thinking and certainly not with their mostly flawed plan of action.  I think we’re supposed to understand it but still look at it with some distance.  The final act of the movie focuses less on the group and more specifically on Emily.  She’s fed up with her boyfriend (who shows a continued attraction to his ex-girlfriend who is dating another of the group members and is present at the dinner), and she decides to leave the house, realizing that maybe this version of themselves is the worst version.  Our hero becomes the enemy, in fact, when Emily finds another dimension where they seem to be having a good time, she crawls in the house and attempts to kill that version of herself.

It’s a thrilling moment, but it’s weighed down because it feels cliche, like we’ve seen this before.  That’s in contrast with the first two acts which constantly kept you on your toes and in which you were just as fascinated by the characters’ insecurities and stupidity as you were by their circumstances.

The third act problems are similar to The One I Love.  In each case, the best part of the movie is the mystery and what that mystery reveals in our protagonists.  The audience’s role, in both cases, is to put yourself in their shoes, to identify part of yourself in them and their behavior.  You are meant to see the world through their eyes and thus to re-evaluate your own perspective.  What would I do if I saw myself?  How would I react and would I be afraid/aggressive, etc.?  These were the questions I did ask a friend with whom I saw the movie.

But the third act makes the characters more active.  It’s when they distance themselves from us because while some of us might think we would do the same, many of us wouldn’t.  And that’s okay, I suppose.  We’re not meant to agree with what they do, but their sudden leap into action feels false considering the amount of time we watch them deliberate.  In other words, it does’t feel like the slow coiling of a spring, soon to be released, as such pacing does feel in a Tarantino movie.  Instead it feels like a long jumper who jumped without stretching and pulled his hamstring.  It’s sudden but without the buildup.

But the questions at the center of this movie are fascinating in a philosophical way.  Maybe the way we treat ourselves is indicative of the way we treat others and the way we see the world.  It’s like a moment of truth.  You’re at your most pure, let’s say, when you’re staring at yourself, not in a mirror, but in the flesh.  I have no idea what I’m saying, but a movie like this seems to suggest that we don’t really know ourselves, mostly because when push comes to shove we’re willing to kill ourselves for… ourself.

This movie was heavily improvised.  The director would approach each actor for a particular scene and hand them a notecard that told them what they needed to know.  In some cases a certain actor or two are not meant to be the same version of that character from before.  Every time a character leaves the house, they return to a different house. The Hugh and Amir who left early on don’t immediately come back, even when they show up.  So the director made each actor aware of only what that character would’ve been aware of.

That meant a sense of immediacy.  The actors who played Hugh and Amir knew only that they were in the wrong house at some point, before the others did.  In one scene Emily’s boyfriend wants to leave the house to investigate something, but Emily throws herself in front of the door and tells him he can’t leave.  The director’s notes before the scene to the man were to leave the house and to Emily it was to not let him leave the house.  Then he rolls camera and sees what happens.

The result is kind of messy but much more authentic.  These characters feel like they have a shorthand with each other, and they feel desperate, crazy, paranoid and everything else they should feel.

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