EIFF 2014: Coherence review

Andrew checks out character-based science-fiction movie Coherence and finds it full of existential horror...

This is not what you’d expect from a co-writer of Rango, but James Ward Byrkit’s debut feature feels destined to be, for want of a better phrase, a big undercurrent. By mainstream standards this is elliptical, but it’s no Shane Carruth film, despite its fair share of WTF moments. Despite a classic horror film setup it doesn’t unfold typically, and despite being out last year in the States it hasn’t got a UK release yet. This contributes to the feeling that it’s going to be beloved by a few rather than watched by many.

And hey, as you’re reading Den Of Geek, odds are you could be one of these people.

The presence of Nicholas Brendon in the cast (indulging in an amusing meta joke involving Roswell) will certainly lure some Buffy fans Coherence‘s way. As part of an ensemble cast who partly improvised their dialogue from Byrkit’s story outline, he’s – in the best possible way – a cog. The characters’ interactions are key to the gradual unfolding of the story, which starts off with a standard horror trope: a bunch of people with secrets and animosity gather for a dinner party.

You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d seen this film before to begin with, but the setup is skilfully done. It achieves the familiar, lays foundations for all the characters, and then subverts expectation. The naturalistic conversations establish the types for the inevitable descent into chaos, but when it comes it’s not in the form of a psychopath with a grudge and access to pointy stuff. In fact, it’s someone just as scared and confused as the dinner guests themselves.

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Then, after mentioning that there’s a comet in the skies at that moment, the power cuts out. This is when things start getting weird.

For all the twists after the comet flies overhead, the real cleverness in this film lies in it being more character based than high concept. The resulting nightmare is unsettling, high on tension initially, and low on gore and jump-scares. There are some simple thrills to be had from opening a box, or seeing a note pinned to a door. The concept that allows increased exploration of the tensions between the characters is clever, undoubtedly, but the real brilliance is that it’s merely a hook to hang things on, rather than the focal point. Despite the film occasionally slowing down to explain the phenomenon, it never becomes so intricate or confusing as to obfuscate the core of the film: these people are brittle, and something’s about to snap.

Another plus to Coherence is that it keeps evolving in unexpected ways, yet its conclusion is subtly foreshadowed, so once you’ve recovered from the unexpected route it takes, you realise that it makes perfect sense based on previous dialogue. Things are carefully setup by the script, like Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright decided to go down the psychological horror route. It’s worth stressing that the horror here is existential, personal and thought provoking. Via Emily Foxler’s nominal heroine Em (in the same way as Ned Stark was the nearest thing to a hero Game of Thrones had, Em is there for audience identification, but no-one in this film is without guilt), it’s easy to put yourself into her position and let the ramifications of the situation filter through. It’s horrible, but it isn’t your typical horror.

In some ways, it plays out like a black comedy. The actions of each character have repercussions for them, some of which are morbidly amusing, and as everyone gets more wound up more sarcastic comments ensue. Existential bleakness brings out the sardonic streak in people, especially Brendon’s Mike. When the tension rises, it’s often broken by a well-placed quip, though ultimately the longer the film goes on the more it becomes intriguing rather than suspenseful.

As the tension is stretched and then gradually relaxed, rather than suddenly let go in a sudden jolt, this might disappoint people who were expecting physical rather than emotional carnage. However, in this film the characters lead things, meaning that some of the narrative contrivances are excusable given the firmly established tendencies of the perpetrators, and also that the open-ended nature of the denouement doesn’t lend itself to a positive interpretation.

Overall, Coherence is a satisfying exploration of an innovative idea, worthy of investing time and thought in.

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4 out of 5