A review requested by Daniel S, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Lord save me from indie films with handheld cameras. The microbudget 2013 feature Coherence ends up being rather a rather snazzy mindfuck once the story gets going, and the story gets going fairly early on (the movie is but 89 minutes long, and thus has limited time to screw around). But getting to that point takes an awful lot of patience, at least if you share my bias against the standard mode of American indie production since around the middle of the 2000s.

So here are the ingredients: eight people gather for a dinner party in suburban Los Angeles, on the night of an exceptionally weird comet passing overhead ("weird" at first means "makes people's cell phone screens spontaneously crack", but that's just the warm-up). Keeping the eight straight requires a bit of an effort, but here's the breakdown in terms of couples: Mike (Nicholas Brendon, why by virtue of his years with Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the biggest name by a considerable margin) and Lee (Lorene Scafaria, who has since established herself as a writer-director) are the hosts, and their guests are Emily (Emily Foxler) and Kevin (Maury Sterling), Beth (Elizabeth Gracen) and Hugh (Hugo Armstrong), and Amir (Alex Manugian) and Laurie (Lauren Maher), the last of whom is Kevin's ex. For the first little while, we just get to learn who these people are (the first time through, it seems like the introductions last about 30 minutes, but in fact the seeds of the plot are being planted and watered by the 15-minute mark), and this is the part of Coherence to which I most strenuously object.

The film was the brainchild of James Ward Byrkit, whose career has been spent mostly in the orbit of Gore Verbinski - storyboard artist on the Pirates of the Caribbeans, writer on Rango, etc. - and who hit a point where he wanted to do something smaller, more actor-driven, less commercial. So it was that he came up with a plot outline, gave each of his eight characters a secret or two, and invited the cast to improvise their way through some slightly awkward pre-dinner conversation tinged with all those secrets. The results are whatever the hell they are. There are definitely worse films made on this improv-with-notes model; the cast at least has the benefit of being comfortable and natural on-camera, which is leagues beyond all those damn movies where New York-based directors hire other New York-based directors to "act". But the limitations of the form are more or less the same: characters who feel helplessly penned-in by the lived experience of the people playing him. That is to say, gather a bunch of somewhat addle-headed, out-of-touch Angelinos - e.g. a room full of actors - and they're going to come up with a room of addle-headed, out-of-touch Angelinos. They're just not very interesting people, and they think not very interesting thoughts, ant they say not very interesting things, though at least they say it with a fair degree of articulate flair.

Compounding matters, Byrkit's aesthetic is quite without any personality or marks of distinction. Deliberately sloppy handheld cameras, zooming and reframing in the middle of shots; arrhythmic shot lengths in the raggedy cutting; the whole nine yards, except that Coherence, thank God, sounds perfectly fine. It's the same "we shall embrace our shitty artlessness as a point of pride" thing that digital microbudget filmmakers have played at since the dawn of the form, and if that's your thing, you are a vastly more forgiving filmgoer than I could imagine being.

The aesthetic, at least, never changes, and never stopped pulling me out of the movie. The acting, however, turns out to be a secret strength, since the story ends up being entirely driven by how a completely banal event is shattered through the subtlest, almost indiscernible shifts. Presenting itself, initially, as the non-adventures of eight rather tepid human beings is exactly how Coherence goes about pulling the rug out from underneath the viewer - and the characters, I suppose.

At some point, anybody wanting to talk about Coherence is going to have to go ahead and say what Coherence is, which disappoints me - I managed to walk in completely blind (I didn't even know what genre it was), and I think that's easily the best way to experience getting blindsided. So if you've never seen it, I want you to know that all of the terrible things I've said so far are actually kind of beside the point. Not the handheld camera. That's unforgivable bullshit. The movie itself is certainly worth seeing, if only to bask in the exercise of it.

As for that exercise: it is, of course, all about multiple universes. The comet, for reasons of its own, has triggered a bleedover between marginally different realities, and all of them are suddenly able to see each other and interact, leading to a multiplicity of dinner parties of the same eight people across all infinity. The title Coherence, then, has nothing to do with "easy to understand" (I wonder, in fact, if that's actually part of the joke), but with "cohering", that is, the different realities are all starting to hook into each other and collapsing into a single reality. Or something like that. Schrödinger's cat is brought up to explain it, courtesy of a physics textbook that shows up much too conveniently.

Anyway, the cod-science isn't what interests me, and neither is trying to puzzle out which reality, and which version of each of the characters we're looking at in any given moment. The latter does lead to some awfully fun "aha!" moments, in which every single mystery that the film starts to pile up in the middle turns out to be answerable based on the fact that every different dinner party is going through roughly the same decision making process, but at different times throughout the night. It's richly pleasurable to suddenly realise what some random detail from earlier in the movie means, as it snaps into place with a decisive "click" (the question of why certain photos have numbers written on them is, to me, by far the most pleasurable of all). The film is complicated, but frankly not very cunning: unlike e.g. Primer from 2004, it wants the audience to figure everything out, at least as far as the central mysteries go (the overall point-by-point graph of who's who is something entirely different). And that leads to some pretty swell endorphin rushes.

But anyway, I was saying that I don't find that part of the movie terribly compelling; if Coherence has one huge problem as a story, it's that it feels very much like watching a math problem play out, with human names given to the variables, and focusing too much on the mechanics of it only encourages that response. The interesting part, to me, is watching the character dynamic disintegrate. We have here a variation on the basic Night of the Living Dead situation: a crisis that is, ultimately, very survivable turns into a huge problem because the characters are idiots, and they get to petty infighting the second that things go wrong. In this case, there's a thick vein of irony added by the twist that the characters are all contemplating literal self-destruction, from the moment that Mike decides to kill one of the other Mikes before the other Mike can kill him. Notwithstanding the multiverse gimmick, we've seen this before, but the transition from chatty urban indie comedy of manners to sweaty thriller, all with the same lo-fi character dynamics, is pretty rewarding.

Eventually, the film focuses in on just one character, who we've been following more or less since the beginning, and thus know to be the "real" version; it turns, rather wonderfully, into a small, nasty little fable about feeling regret and wishing to have a different life, where you made better choices. I wish Coherence had gotten to that point sooner; the last five or seven minutes of the film are easily its most compelling and even moving, on a character-based level, and if the whole thing had been playing with those questions, it could have been so much more than a brain teaser. Not that it's a bad brain teaser, by any means; but the human element is a bit lacking, and the moments where it comes front and center only make it more frustrating that Byrkit and company decided, for whatever reason, against spending more time in that mode.