Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Forty

Top 50 10s 40

#40 — Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, 2014)

Of all the recurring quandaries of modern fiction, one of the most consistently compelling seeks to determine how human beings will handle themselves when everything starts to fall apart. If a couple globe-spanning wars and a devastating flu pandemic in the first half of the twentieth century weren’t enough to put everyone on edge, the existential threat of the Cold War, when apocalypse might drop from the sky at any moment, tattooed worries about who else might be in the bomb shelter right onto the the collective psyche of the populace. There was a nagging suspicion, fortified by any number of storytellers, that however bad the wanton destruction caused by frightful arms might be, the base instincts of fellow panicked people would be worse.

Coherence, written and directed by James Ward Byrkit, expertly taps into that anxiety about danger lurking within a tight-knit band of cohorts, and mixes the psychological hair-triggering with some metaphysical trickery. Up in the Hollywood hills, friends gather for a dinner party, their usual small talk peppered with amused recounting of the conspiracy theories burbling up around a comet passing near the planet. Bantering about a theoretical cosmic threat is all in good fun, and then the power goes out. Nerves already singed, the night grows stranger with mysterious items appearing, evidently as messages from the unseen residents at a nearby house. And as the dining companions explore and experiment, they begin to suspect a rippling of reality is taking place.

Byrkit deliberately made the film into a puzzle he had to solve, developing the story as escalating narrative dares and then asking his cast to improvise around their impressions of the discombobulating circumstances, always informing by an understanding of the characters intertwined histories. There are a thousand ways that method can explode into chaos, but Byrkit keeps it sharp and focused. Coherence has the same meticulous mechanics of Rian Johnson’s various genre deconstructions, and the looseness of Byrkit’s creative approach imbues the film with a social verisimilitude that smartly contrasts with the fanciful philosophical inventions of the story’s core conceit. Even when the universe bends in fantastic ways, the story — and the people living through it — need to feel real for a film to work. And Coherence works marvelously.

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