The doppelgänger has been the motif-du-jour for low-to-mid budget indie dramas and thrillers of late, perhaps highlighting the fact that simple but credible visual effects are now within the grasp of most filmmakers working with a shoestring budget. Of course the idea of a human double is nothing new: it has been explored in cinema countless times before – more often than not with satisfying, intriguing and creepy results – while the concept has existed in literature for hundreds of years. In James Ward Byrkit’s directorial debut Coherence there are many doppelgängers — at least one for every cast member, though a repeat viewing and unbroken concentration would be necessary to identify the correct number.
Using a cast of improvisational actors and two busy, hand-held cameras, Ward Byrkit sets up his premise with a minimum of fuss. Eight middle-class friends (four heterosexual couples) gather in Santa Monica for a dinner party, and in the middle of their light-hearted conversation they notice that some of their smartphone screens have spontaneously shattered. Talk immediately turns to Miller’s Comet, currently passing through the night sky above, with nervous heroine Em (Emily Baldoni) explaining that a similar body passed over Finland 100 years earlier and caused strange phenomena and visual hallucinations. Suddenly the lights go out in the whole neighbourhood, although co-host Mike (Nicholas Brendon) soon restores power. Oddly when several members of the party venture outside to take a look at the comet they notice that a house further up the street also has power; when Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and Amir (Alex Manugian) wander over to see if they can make a phone call or to see if the house has internet access they return in shock, carrying a mysterious box: it transpires that the house up the road is an exact replica of the one they are all in, while the box contains photos of the group with numbers on the back that have been written in Em’s handwriting.
The director mapped out a detailed story with actor and co-writer Manugian that smartly plays around with the themes of recognition and stolen or mistaken identity from the off, though with no pre-scripted dialogue it’s the actors who pick up such ideas and run with them. Dancer Em explains how she was replaced not once but twice by rivals prior to a performance, while Mike insists to Laurie (Lauren Maher) that he appeared in several seasons of a TV show she watched despite the fact she doesn’t recognise him (this is a wry joke at the expense of the actor in question — Brendon appeared in over 140 episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer). Meanwhile Laurie previously dated Kevin (Maury Sterling), who is now going out with Em; there’s even a line suggesting that Laurie’s new beau Amir always picks up Kevin’s ex-girlfriends. As the events of the evening become stranger, and more serious, the use of doppelgängers is tied in with the notion of hidden personalities, with Mike in particular revealing a self-destructive and violent streak.
The five day shoot took place in Ward Byrkit’s own house, and each actor was given just a few key lines, character details and motivations on a daily basis. The improvisational approach works very well indeed, with overlapping chatter and natural-sounding dialogue a feature throughout and the reactions to events (or even comments made by other characters) mostly seem genuine and plausible. Each character is understandably jumpy and several make jokes about the situation they have found themselves in to diffuse the tension. There’s also an adherence to gender stereotyping in the way that the women wish to follow official advice and remain safely indoors while the men are more hot-headed, keen to go outside and confront or spy on those in the other house (arguably to obtain a greater understanding of the situation, but more likely because they have to be seen to be doing so).
Thankfully Coherence delivers on its intriguing sci-fi premise with a rigorous story, and though it operates at times like a puzzle that is becoming ever-more complicated the creepier moments ensure that the film straddles the divide between mystery, horror and thriller successfully. Kristin Øhrn Dyrud’s score encapsulates the prevailing discordant mood and works well with the film’s few out-and-out shocks, while the ensemble acting is good and the editing is equally commendable (Lance Pereira has been singled out for praise by Ward Byrkit for his ability to piece together scenes from the hours of footage amassed). The use of a single location and the camerawork may put some off, and one or two awkward passages of quantum mechanics-related exposition (complete with barely credible plot points) are dropped into the middle before the mystery begins to unfold, but unlike last year’s The One I Love this film manages to provide its viewers with an acceptable explanation for its strange occurrences and contains a punchy ending to boot. A low-budget gem.
Directed by: James Ward Byrkit.
Written by: James Ward Byrkit. Story by James Ward Byrkit and Alex Manugian.
Starring: Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon, Elizabeth Gracen, Alex Manugian, Lauren Maher, Hugo Armstrong, Lorene Scafaria.
Cinematography: Nic Sadler.
Editing: Lance Pereira.
Music: Kristin Øhrn Dyrud.
Running Time: 88 minutes.