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On the night of a comet’s passage into Earth’s orbit, a group of four couples meet for dinner at one of their houses. As the friends hang out and talk, they notice that they’ve all lost cell reception. When the lights suddenly go out, the group heads outside only to discover that the entire neighborhood seems to have lost power…with the exception of a single house several streets down, that is. A hesitant mission to explore the mysteriously lit house returns with information but it’s not the kind of thing anyone wants to hear: the house is full of people, all right…eight people that look just like them.

That’s the basic set-up for writer James Ward Byrkit’s directorial debut, Coherence (2014), an exceptionally smart little bit of sci-fi paranoia that neatly slots into a year that saw a plethora of doppelgänger/double films, including the similar +1 (2014). If some of the execution comes across as a bit rushed and the acting often veers into the rough end of things, there’s no shortage of ambition here and Byrkit nails a creepy tone often enough to justify hanging in for the ride. There’s also a genuine sense of intelligence here that pushes Coherence into a select group of films that include Timecrimes (2007) and Primer (2004), nice company for a first-time director to be in. There are even times where the film achieves the kind of unexplained, Lovecraftian dread that made Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (2014) one of my favorite films of the year: again, not bad company to be in at all.

Part of what makes Coherence such an effective film is the way in which Byrkit threads the notions of cause-and-effect and probability through the entire narrative, which twists and turns on itself like a snake. At times, the films many whiplash twists can get a bit dizzying but it never feels overwhelming, mostly because the script doles out information and audience support as needed without ever feeling overly expository. There’s still enough doubt by the film’s conclusion to make it relatively open-ended, although it feels more like a choice than the kind of “backed into a corner” resolution that can often result from this kind of film. While some of the film’s rationalizations come across as a little wonky, it never feels silly or improbable.

Another aspect of Coherence that struck me as particularly impressive was the way in which the film managed to recall the feel of vintage Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episodes without ever seeming like a slavish imitation. In particular, the basic setup reminded me of the classic “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” episode, at least on a surface level. This impression was also driven home by the film’s editing style, which often felt as if it left room for commercial breaks, for some inexplicable reason: while I wasn’t a fan of this particular quirk in the slightest, I do admit that the enjoyed the Twilight Zone association immensely.

If I had any real issue with Byrkit’s debut (the filmmaking was generally fine, although the shaky cam and over-reliance on close-ups could be distracting), it definitely resides with the often hit-or-miss acting. When the ensemble connects, they definitely feel authentic, which lends a chilling sense of realism to the admittedly bizarre events around them. When they don’t, however, the whole thing tends to become amateurish and rather over-the-top. In particular, Hugo Armstrong and Nicholas Brendon are prime offenders as Hugh and Mike, respectively. Armstrong never really comes across as anything more than shouty and blustery, which strips any nuance from his character and makes him seem like a particularly obnoxious plot contrivance. Brendon is also over-the-top but I lay quite a bit of the blame for that at Byrkit’s feet: as written, the character of Mike is a complete mess and serves only to add unnecessary melodrama to scenes that don’t need it. His constant kvetching about his drinking gets old fast and I could never fully understand his motivations.

On the plus side, Emily Foxler is quite good as Em and provides a fairly well-rounded protagonist. She’s likable, which certainly helped in a film where the characters often seemed self-absorbed to the point of stage-bound artificiality. Maury Sterling was also consistently good as Em’s boyfriend, Kevin: the two actors had good chemistry together and Sterling was always an interesting performer to watch. Elizabeth Gracen’s performance as Beth could tend towards the OTT, ala Armstrong’s, but I chalked a bit of that up to story issues: she did some nice, subtle work, at times,  and I bought her relationship with Hugh part and parcel. For their parts, Scafaria, Manugian and Maher give good performances but don’t do much to stand out, although Manugian’s Amir does make a fairly ridiculous “bad boy.”

For the most part, I enjoyed Coherence: the film could be rough, at times (the lighting, in particular, was always rather flat and ugly), and it always felt like a few too many ideas were being stuffed into too small a space but there was no shortage of ambition here and many of the film’s concepts were the kind of next-level clever that you just don’t see in many films. While I ended up liking +1 just a little more (there’s something about that film’s gonzo pool-house siege scene that will forever reserve it a place in my heart), I will admit nothing but admiration for Byrkit’s debut. When it’s good, it’s subtly mind-blowing and is never anything less than completely thought-provoking. I, for one, will be eagerly awaiting Byrkit’s next film: if he can keep improving on the formula established here and tighten up the filmmaking, I have a feeling that he’ll be bending the fabric of space and time before we know it.