You’ve attended less interesting (but also less irritating) dinner parties than the one at the center of “Coherence,” a scrappy, low-budget hybrid of paranoid domestic thriller and sci-fi head trip that has a few crafty surprises up its sleeve. Said surprises, while cleverly doled out over the film’s brisk 88-minute running time, don’t entirely offset the general displeasure of spending time with this particular circle of friends, lovers and old flames, whose nerves become increasingly frayed due to the malevolent influence of a comet streaking ominously across the night sky. A shakily shot, heavily improvised portrait of group meltdown spiked with intriguing WTF moments, James Ward Byrkit’s feature writing-directing debut will eke out modest returns in limited release through Oscilloscope, but has unmistakable calling-card potential.
Arriving one fateful evening at the cozy suburban home of acerbic actor Mike (Nicholas Brendon) and his affable wife, Lee (Lorene Scafaria), pretty Em (Emily Foxler) is the closest figure to a protagonist in a group that also includes her boyfriend, Kevin (Maury Sterling); older married couple Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and Beth (Elizabeth Gracen); and the annoying Amir (Alex Manugian), who has thoughtlessly brought along one of Kevin’s exes, Laurie (Lauren Maher), as his date. Byrkit sets the scene and the table nicely enough, establishing a warm candlelit atmosphere of friendly chit-chat and vaguely discernible tension, even if his storytelling choices — overlapping dialogue, banal digressions, excessively wobbly camerawork, extreme closeups and jagged editing — at times strain too hard for authenticity.
But then, perhaps the fragmented indie roughness of it all — particularly the way editor Lance Pereira ends nearly every scene with an abrupt cut to black — is meant to signify a deeper rift in the film’s universe. There are playful early hints of what’s to come: Em shares a story about her past experience as a dancer that leads to a pointed conversation about parallel lives and stolen destinies; Mike, it turns out, once starred on the sci-fi series “Roswell.” And in short order, accompanied by the foreboding shudder of Kristin Ohrn Dyrud’s minimalist score, the comet makes its big entrance, shutting down everyone’s cell phones and causing a massive power outage — a minor inconvenience compared with the Moebius-strip craziness of what happens next.
Although Byrkit confines his actors and his largely unscripted story to the house, “Coherence” soon reveals its true setting to be some nocturnal twilight zone located at the juncture of Luis Bunuel’s “The Exterminating Angel,” Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” and Shane Carruth’s “Primer,” all superior exercises in cine-surrealism. Once more we find ourselves at a dinner party whose guests find themselves hard pressed to escape, thanks largely to complications provided by an invasive celestial body and a series of … well, to say more would spoil the modest fun. Suffice to say that while the story’s revelations are diverting enough, the implications are sometimes chilling for the wrong reasons: The idea that we might be stuck in an eternal loop (or “roulette wheel,” as one character calls it) with some of the movie’s more insufferable characters — Mike with his boozy, knuckleheaded ideas, Beth with her feng shui and her ketamine-and-valerian cocktails — is indeed a disquieting one to contemplate.
What is the narrative significance of a ping-pong paddle, a box of red glowsticks and a shattered windshield? In its teasing, inverted fashion, the film does eventually get around to supplying an answer. But the larger questions it seeks to posit — can we ever really know ourselves? And if so, would we want to? — go largely unaddressed, in part because Byrkit and his actors never succeed in convincing us that these characters are worth knowing in the first place. As the politesse wears off and the claws come out, “Coherence” devolves into a noisy, cluttered portrait of dysfunction, all clenched fists and shouted expletives. The twists may be novel, but the talk, and the upshot, are all too dispiritingly familiar.