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By Elias Savada | June 30, 2014

It’s not often that a film so small can make a great impression. “Coherence” does just that.

And then it did it again.

What a smart, well crafted, nuanced film, I told myself. With a cast of eight and a budget only a microscope could see, first time feature director James Ward Byrkit rocks the metaphysical world with his mind-bending look at duality as told like a campfire horror story. Four childless couples gather at a suburban home to celebrate the arrival of Miller’s Comet, one of those once-in-a-lifetime astronomical events.  Their dinner party descends into a nightmarish evening that makes all of them possible strangers to one another. And themselves.

I wanted to learn more and found the film’s website. Wow, winner of a handful of awards, including best screenplay at last year’s Sitges and Fantastic Fest. Byrkit, a longtime collaborator with Gore Verbinski, was a conceptual artist and consultant on the first three “Pirates of the Caribbean” mega-million productions; Byrkit also provided several of the voice characterizations (and co-wrote the story) for the original animated western “Rango.” Apparently a teller of strange tales for some time, he tried to tackle the sci-fi genre first with his short film “Fractalus” (2005), which starred two of the actors (Austin Highsmith, Maury Sterling) in “Coherence.” The other six cast members include an array of writer, director, actor hyphenates. Good, young professional faces. S

mart people, too. Lorene Scafaria wrote and directed “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.” Alex Manugian worked with Byrkit as a producing and writing partner (including this feature) and has acted in “Fight Club.” Hugo Armstrong is known for his Los Angeles theatre work. Lauren Maher was the wench Scarlett in the three Verbinski-directed “Pirates” films. Fans of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” will remember Nicholas Brendon as Xander Harris. Elizabeth Gracen has acted across the film/tv spectrum, particularly as the immortal Amanda Darieux in “The Highlander” and its spinoff series. And Swedish-born Emily Foxler (a.k.a. Emily Baldoni) has guest starred on dozens of television series.

Watching the film reminded me of Dogme 95, the cinematic philosophy embraced two decades ago by such Danish directors as Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, in which all traditional values in the filmmaking process are cut to the bare bone. I thought that Byrkit, who directed and scripted, really went back to the basics for the story and acting. That “Coherence” broke everything down to the raw basics.

And then I read the production notes. (Don’t worry, this won’t spoil anything if you haven’t seen the film—now in theatres and coming soon to VOD.)

Aside from tackling a rather complex set of metaphysical and physical (the film was shot mostly in a very constricted house) issues, it was meant to test how much the cast could stretch its improvisational limits.  Yes, improv. Done exceedingly well. And this experiment got weirder. Shot consecutively over five nights, “actors were presented each morning with individual cards that explained (his or her) character’s motivations and stories to share for the upcoming night’s shoot.” The actors were NOT given any knowledge about what the other seven characters’ traits and experiences would be.

Ok, granted, this seems like something destined for failure, especially since it was filmed without rehearsal or camera blocking. Byrkit (behind directors of photography Nic Sadler and Arlene Muller) armed himself with a detailed treatment developed with co-writer Manugian and was able to keep crucial character friction, story movement, and plot twists (included those the the cast added) on track. The cinematography is best described as intimate, with nothing but handheld closeups and medium shots. Lance Pereira does an excellent editing job.

I’m not going to get into the story, other than to say it is a wild, puzzling, Buñuelian search for self-identity, one that gets progressively more paranoid as the comet crosses the cold night sky. There are plenty of small clues to munch on—cracked cell phone screens, discussions about Schrödinger’s cat quantum mechanics experiment, a drug concoction with the hallucinogen ketamine, strange notes, strange boxes, neighborhood blackouts, and assorted other goose bumps. It’s an acid trip that, for most of the characters, will fade with the morning sun. For those of us on the other side of “Coherence,” looking in, it’s a compelling “Twilight Zone” hall of mirrors.

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