In Neil Simon’s mystery farce Murder by Death, satirical versions of the most famous detectives in fiction are invited to spend the night in a Charles Addams-esque mansion, with the promise of “dinner and a murder.” By the time their exotic host—played with fey charm by Truman Capote—has truly ramped up the evening by not only providing said corpse as promised, but also macabre clues that increasingly defy the laws of logic, time, and space, the portly Milo Perrier (James Coco, acting as the story’s Hercule Poirot stand-in) is forced to inquire:
“When is a dining room filled with people not a dining room filled with people?”
If you happen to know the movie’s answer to that question, I’ve just afforded you a (mild) spoiler as to the goings-on contained in writer/director James Ward Byrkit’s joyfully batcrap-crazy metaphysical thriller Coherence. Filmed on a low budget where every dollar really is on the screen, Byrkit’s film centers on a small dinner party being enjoyed by four couples, when a comet’s near-Earth passing that very night leads to a neighborhood-wide blackout, followed by physically and mentally disorienting events sure to keep viewers guessing, and frequently surprised (along with the characters) until the very final frames. Thank me later for saying exactly nothing else about the details of the script.
Maybe I do have to say just a little bit more. While the movie is an ensemble piece through and through, we’re set up to experience this bizarre story mainly through the eyes of Em (Emily Foxler, now Baldoni), who during the opening shot is trying to manage a stressful cell-phone call in her car while on her way to the party. The cellular signal is irregular and she has a difficult time understanding what’s being said. What causes her phone’s screen to spontaneously crack as it goes dead? How will she soon react to the uncomfortable situation of breaking bread with her boyfriend’s ex?
Will some or all of the guests in attendance get so drunk they won’t recognize themselves, or might they behave in ways that make them unrecognizable to each other? Oh, look, I am starting to drop more hints. If I have already perhaps offered too much in the way of spoilers, I’ll just blame that on my evil twin.
OK, now I really have to get a hold of myself. Is this actually me typing these words, or someone else?
The film is a delicious mix of smart, carefully managed plotting and lively performances, boasting a talented cast (who reportedly improvised a great deal of their dialogue) and efficient, energetic direction. As twist after twist is revealed, the story drives towards dark farce that frequently threatens to unravel into complete absurdity at any moment…but never does.
Partly reminiscent of the inventive sci-fi shocker Cube and partly familiar for its resemblance to Luis Buñuel’s ghoulish social satire The Exterminating Angel (which likewise observes that groups of so-called civilized people will descend into savagery when presented with an adequately impenetrable existential dilemma), Coherence also tosses in dashes of The Twilight Zone, elements of John. W. Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?,” something of a Dogme 95 feel, and a sprinkling of Schrödinger’s Cat (if you hadn’t already learned it from The Big Bang Theory), all while performing the minor miracle of being deviously complex but never terribly difficult to follow.
Want more? It even succeeds in parodying the genre it works in without ever sacrificing its own integrity, courtesy of some viciously on-target zingers in the dialogue. At one point relatively early in the evening’s action, one of the assembled guests shrieks in protest of a suggested plan that the group take their blue glowsticks (Or are they red? That difference might be crucial) and split up to cover more ground, a well-known thriller no-no. The person who originally suggested the idea fires back, with poker-faced sincerity:
“We’re not splitting up. We’re just going in two different groups.”
Later, another character condemns the kind of uncinematic inaction that would have saved many a movie victim from certain doom:
“What’s smart? Sitting here, doing nothing?”
Well, yes. But then, had they done what was “smart,” we wouldn’t have this extremely clever movie to talk about. And talk about it you will.
UPDATE: The breaking news (as I type, anyway) is that this terrific movie has just been picked up for US distribution by Oscilloscope Laboratories. Outstanding!
NEW UPDATE! Coherence is coming to theaters June 20, 2014. Go!