Faced with the Unexplained Other
Emily Foxler, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon, Elizabeth Gracen, Alex Manugian, Lauren Maher, Hugo Armstrong, Lorene Scafaria
US theatrical: 20 Jun 2014 (Limited release)
Coherence achieves several effects at once. A tense, speculative sci-fi piece, it most often plays like a self-serious, especially nightmarish episode of Come Dine with Me, a show where the familiar antagonisms of dinner parties everywhere are heightened to make excruciating reality TV. Alternatively, James Ward Bykrit’s movie resembles at times a theatre hater’s idea of what a contemporary play looks like, peopled as it is with an unlikeable, set of smug urbanites in a confined space where they’re prone to shouting.
It opens with Em (Emily Foxler), on the phone with her boyfriend Kevin (Maury Sterling), while making her way to a dinner party, an event that coincides with a comet passing. We watch the guests arrive at their destination and begin to interact in ways that are outwardly warm, but also feature many stinging slights and a swirling undercurrent of resentment.
This start leads where you guess it will, namely, all these individuals and their insecurities get thoroughly skewered over the course of the evening in cliché-skimming fashion: Em and Kevin’s relationship is undermined by Laurie (Lauren Maher), his sleek ex in a tight dress, the archetypal “sexy” bad girl who’s given little more depth or dimension. Another guest, Beth (Elizabeth Gracen), a very familiar New Age bore, expounds ad nauseam on the benefits of Feng Shui and the slightly suspect pick-me-up she brings to share with the group.
Beth’s summarily dismissed by her beardy, condescending husband Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and has a past indiscretion dragged into the candlelight. There’s a horribly awkward dinner-table exchange between a boozy, out-of-work actor named Mike (Nicholas Brendon) and Laurie, when she asks about his stalled career, which also leads to a fair amount of career one-upmanship.
Just when the prospect of any more time in the company of these people begins to grate, every house but one in the neighbourhood is blacked out, and the group finds themselves pitted against mysterious “dark versions” of themselves over the course of a single night. It takes surprisingly little time for the narrative to take the standard B-movie “us against them” cant when the originals are faced with the unexplained other.
Leaving aside the twisting plot and the potential difficulty in keeping track of different versions of the group wandering the streets, in allowing Em to “find herself” in blunt, not to say violent, fashion, it makes intriguing, if frustratingly unexplored, suggestions about the ways in which we might yearn to kill off versions of ourselves we’d rather not face.
The primary pleasure of Coherence isn’t its alternate-reality explanation of the mysterious events set in motion by the passage of the comet, which will be heavily signposted for even the most casual horror and sci-fi fans. Instead, this pleasure may be more sinuously emotional, as after we endure the soap operatic horrors of the dinner party, we’re offered a satisfying schadenfreude in its gradual descent into paranoia and aggression.
To this end and also to its mixing of genres, the film generates fear and mistrust with very little in the way of effects, gore or outright scares. The repeated device of an abrupt cut-away at the end of a scene and the limited setting both lend themselves to a taut, claustrophobic little mystery, but it proves tough to care about the fate of any of the characters either way. And this in turn makes the act of adopting a character as viewer surrogate, the suspension of disbelief that’s essential for real shocks, difficult.
So we’re left with yet another alternative, that the film might be taken as a glimpse at what happens when we’re confronted with the worst of ourselves, or maybe how we could choose to take action against those selves. In that version, Coherence, while interesting, spends too little time on the aftermath.